Problem Solving Tips

March 29, 2016

Problem solving - defined as using generic or ad hoc methods in an orderly way to find solutions to problems - is a key professional competency that is at the center of our everyday lives. From addressing crises to developing creative innovations, problem solving is an essential part of our daily routines. Therefore, improving our problem solving skills can help us arrive at more effective solutions.

Attempting to master problem solving could prove challenging to most of us, as most people are not big fans of problems. Problem solving can be a time-consuming process, and the word “problem” itself often carries a negative connotation. So when faced with problems, we may try to eliminate them as quickly as possible by choosing the easiest or most obvious solution, or by only fixing symptoms of a problem. But, as effective problem-solvers (find out your problem solving competency level using this quiz), it is important to be systematic and logical in our approach, avoid making assumptions and jumping to solutions too quickly, and realize potential opportunities that lie behind problems.

One basic problem solving approach is the IDEAL model:

  • —  Identify the problem;
  • —  Define the problem;
  • —  Examine the options: generating, evaluating, and selecting alternatives;
  • —  Act on a plan; and
  • —  Look at the consequences. 

However, if a problem is more complicated, another approach is the Simplex Model, developed by Min Basadur in his book The Power of Innovation.


Although the steps are pretty self-explanatory, here are some additional key points one should be aware of:

  • —  Problem Finding: At this stage, it is important to try to identify the root problem, while also recognizing that more information will be discovered as the process progresses.
  • —  Fact Finding: Besides examining available facts and past solutions, it is also critical to evaluate whether the problem is worth solving.
  • —  Problem Definition: At this stage, try to identify the exact problem or problems that need to be solved by asking "why?" to broaden a question, and "what's stopping you?" to narrow a question. In addition, do not let negative thinking get in your way.
  • —  Idea Finding: Don't evaluate or criticize ideas during this stage, just brainstorm.
  • —  Selection and Evaluation: Now is the time to select the best solution(s). Make sure you evaluate different solutions by employing multiple perspectives.
  • —  Planning Implementation: make sure to utilize project management as well as change management skills.
  • —  Sell Idea: Just as with any other change implementation, you will need to be politically savvy and sell your ideal solution to gain buy-in.
  • —  Action: Last but certainly not least, a good problem solver will take action and implement his or her plan to solve a problem.

Lastly, considering that we live in a globalized world, just like any other topic, be sure to pay additional attention to the cultural context of the problem and respect diversities that are present.

Yuxuan Shen

PAF Class of 2016
BA '13
MA '16