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The receiving, retaining and processing of information or ideas
This skill is all about being able to effectively receive information - whether it comes from customers, colleagues or stakeholders.

Initially, the skill steps concentrate on being able to listen effectively to others - including remembering short instructions, understanding why others are communication and recording important information.

Individuals then focus on how they demonstrate that they are listening effectively, thinking about body language, open questioning and summarising and rephrasing.

Beyond that, the focus is on being aware of how they might be being influenced by a speaker, through tone and language.

The final steps are about critical listening - comparing perspectives, identifying biases, evaluating ideas and being objective.


The oral transmission of information or ideas
This skill is all about how to communicate effectively with others, being mindful of whether they are talking to customers, colleagues or other stakeholders and in different settings.

Initially, this skill focuses on being able to speak clearly - first with well known individuals and small groups and then with those who are not known.

The next stage is about being an effective speaker by making points logically, by thinking about what listeners already know and using appropriate language, tone and gesture.

Beyond that, individuals focus on speaking engagingly through use of facts and examples, visual aids, and their expression and gesture.

Beyond that stage, speakers will be adaptive to the response of their listeners and ready for different scenarios. The final steps focus on speaking influentially - using structure, examples, facts and vision to persuade listeners.

Problem Solving

The ability to find a solution to a situation or challenge
This skill focuses on how to solve problems, recognising that while part of Problem Solving is technical know-how and experience, there are also transferable tools that individuals can develop and use.

The first steps focus on being able to follow instructions to complete tasks, seeking help and extra information if needed. The next stage focuses on being able to explore problems by creating and assessing different potential solutions. This includes more complex problems, without a simple technical solution.

Beyond this, the focus is on exploring complex solutions - thinking about causes and effects, generating options, and evaluating those options. This extends into analysis using logical reasoning and hypotheses.

Finally, individuals implement strategic plans to solve complex problems, assess their success, and draw out learning for the future.


The use of imagination and the generation of new ideas
Creativity is the complement to Problem Solving, and is about generating innovations or ideas which can then be honed through the problem-solving process.

The first few steps focus on the individual's confidence in imagining different situations and sharing their ideas.

The focus is then on generating ideas - using a clear brief, making improvements to something that already exists and combining concepts.

Individuals then apply creativity in the context of their work and their wider life. They can build off this to develop ideas using tools like mind mapping, questioning, and considering different perspectives.

The most advanced steps focus on building effective innovation in group settings and by seeking out varied experiences and stimuli. Finally, individuals support others to innovate, by sharing tools, identifying the right tools for the situation and through coaching.

Staying Positive

The ability to use tactics and strategies to overcome setbacks and achieve goals
This skill is all about individuals being equipped to manage their emotions effectively and being able to remain motivated, and ultimately to motivate others, even when facing setbacks.

The early steps focus on identifying emotions - particularly feeling positive or negative. Building off that is the ability to keep trying - and then staying calm, thinking about what went wrong, and trying to cheer up and encourage others.

The focus then turns to identifying new opportunities in difficult situations, sharing those, and adapting or creating plans accordingly. At more advanced steps, individuals identify and manage risks and gains in opportunities.

Finally, individuals support others to stay positive by managing their own response, helping others to see opportunities and creating plans to achieve them.

Aiming High

The ability to set clear, tangible goals and devise a robust route to achieving them
This skill is about being able to plan effectively - both to achieve organisational goals, and also to set their own personal development targets. Initially, this is about knowing when something is too difficult, and having a sense of what doing well looks like for an individual.

The focus is then about working with care and attention, taking pride in success and having a positive approach to new challenges. Building on this, individuals set goals for themselves, informed by an understanding of what is needed, and then be able to order and prioritise tasks, secure resources and involve others effectively.

At the higher steps, the focus is creating plans informed by an individual's skill set, with clear targets, and building on external views. At the most advanced level, individuals develop long-term strategies. These are informed by an assessment of internal and external factors, structured through regular milestones and feedback loops.


Supporting, encouraging and developing others to achieve a shared goal
This skill is relevant not only for individuals in positions of management with formal power, but also for individuals working with peers in teams.

At the earliest stages, the focus is on basic empathy - understanding their own feelings, being able to share them, and recognising the feelings of others. The focus is on managing - dividing up tasks, managing time and sharing resources, managing group discussions and dealing with disagreements.

Beyond that, individuals build their awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses, and those of their teams. This allows them to allocate tasks effectively. They then build techniques to mentor, coach and motivate others. At the highest steps, individuals will be able to reflect on their own leadership style and understand its effect on others.

Ultimately, they should be able to build on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses, and adapt their leadership style to the situation.


Working cooperatively with others towards achieving a shared goal
This skill applies to working within both formal and informal teams, and also with customers, clients or other stakeholders. Initially, this is about individuals fulfilling expectations around being positive, behaving appropriately, being timely and reliable and taking responsibility. This extends to understanding and respecting diversity of others' cultures, beliefs and backgrounds.

The next steps focus on making a contribution to a team through group decision making recognising the value of others' ideas and encourage others to contribute too.Beyond that, individuals improve their teams through managing conflict and building relationships beyond the immediate team. At the top steps, individuals focus on how they influence their team through suggesting improvements and learning lessons from setbacks.

Ultimately, individuals support the team by evaluating others strengths and weaknesses and bringing in external expertise and relationships.

To achieve Step 8, individuals will show that they can understand that complex problems often have causes and effects. 

Earlier, in Steps 6 and 7, individuals have been exploring complex problems by being able to recognise them and then carry out appropriate research to understand them better. This step builds on this by breaking down complex problems into causes and effects.

Building blocks

The building blocks of this step are learning:

  • What causes and effects are
  • How causes and effects affect our understanding of complex problems

Reflection questions

  • What are causes and effects? 
  • Why are causes and effects a critical part of understanding complex problems? 
  • How can causes and effects join together? 
  • Why does that matter?

What you need to know

Causes and effects

One of the key things about complex problems is that they are not self-contained. Instead, there are links between those problems and other problems – that one thing might affect something else – sometimes quite unexpectedly. 

A key part of understanding complex problems is, therefore, to think about causes and effects:

  • Causes: This is the factor, or factors, that lead to something happening. 
  • Effects: This is the result of the causes – the thing that happened as a result.

Examples of causes and effects

For example, a cause of litter in a park might be that the park has picnic benches that encourage people to eat their lunch in the park, but there are no litter bins available, so people leave their rubbish out. A further effect of the litter in the park might be that wildlife sometimes eats some of the rubbish which can be harmful, or it encourages rats who eat the remaining scraps of food. 

So, if our complex problem was how to make the park better for wildlife, we might see one of our goals as reducing litter in the park. This would then lead to us trying to identify what the causes and effects were of things that caused litter in the park. So, part of the solution might be to have more litter bins, to remove the picnic benches, or to make people more aware of what the impact of littering was to discourage them from doing it. 

However, that is likely only to be part of the solution. Making the park better for wildlife might also be about providing habitats that wildlife can live in, reducing nuisances like too much noise, or providing more staff to look after the park. Each of these is likely also to have further causes and effects. 

We need to think carefully about all of these causes and effects, or we could just go for a simple solution that turns out to be a mistake. For example, if we just put in more bins, the effect of this might be to encourage more people to use the park and scare away wildlife through more noise. We need to think through how causes and effects join together if we’re going to be able to solve complex problems.


How to join up causes and effects

Causes and effects can join together in a range of different ways. The main three are:

  • Static: One cause leads to one effect, which is self-contained. For example, more watering leads to the grass to grow faster. 
  • Linear: The causes and effects join together in a line – one thing causes something else which causes something else. In this way, we can follow one line of thinking all the way through. For example, more rainfall might lead to higher rivers which leads to flooding. 
  • Circular: The causes and effects are circular, and so become self-reinforcing. For example, cheaper technology leads more people to want to buy that technology which means that more of that technology is produced, which makes it cheaper for the manufacturer. This lowers the prices again so increases the demand further. Sometimes this circular cycle eventually reaches an equilibrium – for example, if it stopped being possible to reduce the price, or if everyone who wanted to the technology had bought it. 

To understand complex problems, we need to think about what the causes and effects are that help to make sense of what we see. If we just fix one part of linear or circular causes and effects, we might have a different overall effect than we expected.


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Why this skill step matters in education

Within education you may face a number of complex problems ranging from what courses or topics to study, where to study or what to do next. In the first instance, it is useful to think about the causes and effects of these problems. For example, you might be trying to decide whether to study in your home country or abroad. This might be caused by a number of factors such as better courses overseas but a worry you will miss relatives and friends. Effects could range from gaining a good qualification from a highly regarded institution but you may not enjoy the experience of living in a different place. Seeking to understand more about the causes and effects of a problem is important in education so you can best help yourself when solving a problem or know when to seek more support if needed.

Why this skill step matters in the workplace

In the workplace, it is important to think carefully about the causes and effects of a problem. Whether the organisation is big or small, decisions can affect many people and their daily responsibilities. When working in customer-facing roles, you might be asked to solve complex problems about the public’s experience of using your business such as why sales and profit is lower than usual. If you were to use the first or cheapest solution, you may not resolve the problem and there may be further negative outcomes for the business. This might reflect badly on yourself or your team. By fully exploring the causes and effects of a problem in the workplace, you might see a number of positive outcomes for you, your colleagues and the wider organisation.  

Why this skill step matters in the wider world

When making significant decisions in your personal life,analysing the causes and effects can help you to find a suitable solution. Examples might include looking to move abroad, improve the environment or look at ways to tackle social issues in your local area. These problems require significant consideration and exploring the causes and effects is a useful starting point. Some of these may join together and coming up with solutions might solve multiple aspects of the problem.

How to practise this skill step

To best practise this step of Problem Solving, apply what you have learnt to a real-life situation. Choose one or more of the activities below, remind yourself of the key points and strategies in the step, and have a go!

  • Think about something that has happened in your local area recently – like a shop closing down – what may have been the causes of this? What effects might this have?
  • Consider the cause of any problem you have experienced recently. Talk to a trusted family member, a friend or colleague about this. What have been the effects of this problem?
  • Watch, read or listen to the news. Can you identify the causes and effects of a particular story? Are the causes and effects linked in a static, linear or circular way at all?
  • Share your thinking about static, linear and circular causes and effects with a friend. Can you illustrate your points with examples from your own or others' experiences.

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Teaching It

To teach this step:

  • The teacher can introduce learners to the concept of causes and effects and why it is important to understand how they link together if we want to be able to solve complex problems. 
  • Starting with a simple starting point – for example, closing school for the day –learners can think about what a variety of possible effects that would have (parents or carers having to stay home to look after their children, missed learning, lower traffic, etc.). This can be repeated for a few different examples.
  • Then one can look from a different angle, starting with an effect such as a shop closing and thinking about what the different causes might have been. Additional examples can be brought in.
  • Once learners are secure in understanding what causes and effects, the ways that they interlink can be introduced talking through static, linear and circular causes and effects. Learners can be asked to create one example of each of these. 

Reinforcing it

This is a step which can be usefully introduced in many different aspects of learning. For example, when talking about scientific concepts, a series of events in literature, or historical or geographical phenomena. Learners can map out what the different causes and effects are around these. 

Assessing it 

This step is best assessed through a structured assessment. For example:

  • Asking learners to define cause and effect, and to outline three different ways that causes and effects might interact. 
  • Asking learners to show the causes and effects linked to a complex problem they are given and to share their ideas and rationale.

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Build it at work: 

This step is relevant to individuals whose work frequently exposes them to complex problems.

To build this step in the work environment, managers could:

  • Discuss with the individual the concept of causes and effects and why it is important to understand how they link together if we want to be able to solve complex problems.
  • Explain how causes and effects can join together in a range of different ways to produce effects. Here a manager might explain the three main types as they are described in the section above
  • Model a process of thinking about the causes and possible effects of an event. To help make this concrete for the individual, the example event should be one the individual can relate to. A manager might start by looking at the possible effect of an event, such as an economic downturn, before showing what the causes of this might have been. 
  • Reflect with the individual about the causes and effects of a complex problem they face in their work.

Practising it:

There are plenty of opportunities for building this skill in the workplace:

  • Working with colleagues: During conversations and meetings to review a situation to determine next steps.
  • Working with customers or clients: When helping clients or customers to make sense of a complex problem by exploring them together.

Reviewing it:

For those already employed, this step is best assessed through questioning.

 For instance:

  • Asking an individual to describe the causes and effects of a complex problem. They could be asked to further explain how the causes and effects relate to one another to ascertain whether the individual understands the ways these might combine to create a new dynamic.

Spotting it in recruitment: 

During the recruitment process, this step could be assessed by:

  • Asking an individual to describe the causes and effects of a complex problem. The individual can also be asked to outline three different ways that causes and effects might interact.

Build this step

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We work with a wide range of organisations, who use the Skills Builder approach in lots of different settings – from youth clubs, to STEM organisations, to careers and employability providers.

We have a lot of materials available to support you to use the Skills Builder Universal Framework with the individuals you work with, including:

  • Tools for self-reflection
  • Materials to support you to teach the skills, if appropriate in your setting
  • Reward systems like printable certificates

We also do a lot of work with organisations who join the Skills Builder Partnership to build the Universal Framework into their work and impact measurement systems. You can find out a lot more using the links below.

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Parents & Carers

At home, you can easily support your child to build their essential skills. The good news is that there
are lots of ways that you can have a big impact, including:

  • Talking with your child about the essential skills, what they are and how they are useful in all
    aspects of life, whether at school, home or in the workplace
  • Talking about how you use these skill steps in your own work or wider life
  • Helping your child to identify where they already build their skills at school, at home or
    through other activities and clubs
  • Praising your child when they show they are using the skills well, and helping them to feel a
    sense of achievement
  • Encouraging them to recognise and talk confidently about their skill strengths with others, and
    supporting them to develop their skills further

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