7 common problem-solving strategies (and how they work)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 30 September 2022 | Published 30 November 2021

Updated 30 September 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The ability to solve problems is an incredibly valuable skill in almost any workplace. If you can effectively develop strategies for solving problems, you're going to be a much more appealing candidate when applying for a job or promotion. As there are numerous different strategies, it can be useful to know what some of the more popular ones are if you want to develop this ability. In this article, we explain some of the more effective problem-solving strategies, what they are and why they're important.

Related: Problem-solving skills: definitions and examples

What are problem-solving strategies?

Problem-solving strategies are approaches or methods that you can employ to analyse a problem, develop a workable solution and then implement it. This is useful for overcoming various challenges at work and often involves multiple steps, careful analysis, information gathering and deductive reasoning. It also helps to be knowledgeable regarding your specific field, market or the organisation you work for. This gives you the ability to transform a challenge into a new opportunity and to tailor your solution to be as effective as possible.

Why is it important to know multiple strategies?

A competent problem-solver typically thinks of problem-solving strategies as tools, and for each challenge, there are some tools that are more effective than the others. This is why it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with multiple approaches, steps and practices that you can incorporate into various strategies. Adaptability is an important skill for solving problems and devising strategies for each specific situation.

Related: 10 valuable soft skills that you need to succeed in your career

7 strategies for solving problems

There are several different ways of approaching and handling a problem, depending on the nature of the challenge and the resources available to you. Choosing the most suitable strategy is crucial for devising a workable solution. Below is a list of seven strategies, methods and tips for problem-solving:

Take your time

One of the first things to consider when a problem confronts you is how much time you have left to solve it. If the challenge isn't urgent, it's important to not rush unnecessarily. Hasty decisions are typically less effective than considered ones. If you have some time to develop a solution, step away from the problem initially. This can help you think more carefully, consider all of your options, seek assistance and find more information. Stepping away can also decrease the amount of stress you experience, which is good for your ability to think clearly and determine an effective solution.

Related: Analytical skills: definitions and examples

Seek assistance

Although it can be tempting to try to solve a problem by yourself, this isn't always the best idea. If the problem isn't your responsibility, requires technical skills you don't possess or would necessitate the involvement of many people, the best thing to do is seek assistance. You can still play an active role in developing a solution, but you can also benefit from additional expertise and assistance. A good problem solver knows which problems they can solve alone and which require help. It's important to seek assistance from people who have skills, knowledge and experience relevant to the issue.

Consider your previous experiences

Most problems have something in common with a previous situation you've encountered, especially if you've already got some experience. When you consider a new challenge, try to think of previous scenarios where a similar issue emerged. Consider the following questions:

  • What were the causes?

  • Who's involved?

  • What solutions worked, if any?

Asking yourself these questions can help you find a solution more efficiently. For example, if the problem is a client with a specific complaint, try to recall if you encountered a similar client in the past. Then, consider the following questions:

  • What did it take to satisfy them?

  • Would the same solution be applicable?

  • Is the same solution possible with the resources available?

It's important to develop this habit of asking yourself questions and quickly developing answers. Your previous experiences are among your most valuable resources because they offer knowledge, solutions and context to your present challenges. Using this to your advantage can help streamline the problem-solving process.

Define or redefine the problem

How you define a problem can influence how you address it. In many instances, you might encounter a problem that you can redefine to help you develop a solution. Your definition of the problem dictates your initial approach and mindset, so this can be a crucial step. For example, if you're working in a customer service role and a customer is complaining loudly in the shop, there are multiple ways of defining this. You could define it as a problem involving a singular customer who's unhappy and decide to take steps to satisfy them before the company loses its patronage.

Conversely, you could consider the problem in its proper context. The customer is being loud, and therefore other shoppers and potential customers might notice them. This redefines the problem from involving a single, unhappy customer into a potential public relations issue. The shop risks losing dozens of customers if you don't reach a viable solution. This increases the urgency and risks involved, and by redefining it in context-based terms, you know that a fast and effective solution is necessary. This is also an opportunity to show the public how well you treat your customers, even when they're disagreeable.

Related: What are critical thinking skills and how are they used?

Divide the problem into separate parts

Most problems consist of several factors, such as the people involved, responsibilities assigned, items in question and timing. It can be a challenge to simultaneously consider multiple factors, so a good way to do this is by dividing the problem into its constituent parts. If you have the time, it can be useful to write these down to help with clarity. One method for this involves using the main question words:

  • Who: Who does this involve, who caused the problem and who might be able to help?

  • What: What items, devices or materials does this issue involve?

  • Where: Where has the issue taken place? Is it only relevant to one area, or does it have wider implications?

  • Why: Why is the situation problematic, and what caused the issue?

  • When: When did this problem occur, and how long do you expect it to persist? How much time do you have for developing a solution?

  • How: How can you fix this problem based on the information you have? What steps are necessary to address the issue?

Visualise the problem

The ability to visualise a problem can be very useful for finding a solution. For many people, having a visual representation of the problem can make it much easier to divide it into parts, look at it in context and understand its causes. This is especially important if the problem is a physical one, such as a faulty machine or device, an inefficient or blocked travel route or a lost item. It can be helpful to seek a copy of the blueprints, a map or even images of the area where the problem took place.

In the absence of these resources, you can try to imagine it in your head. Attempt to locate all of the separate aspects of the problem visually and see how they relate to each other. For example, if the problem is a traffic jam that threatens to delay an important delivery, try to visualise the route or open a map. This can make it much easier to find an alternative route to minimise the delay.

Related: Best practices to boost your creative thinking skills

Use trial and error

Trial and error is one of the oldest and most effective approaches to solving a problem. The approach involves trying various solutions in succession to derive more information and insight. This is useful because the problem itself isn't always obvious, and the cause can be difficult to determine. Trial and error involves interacting with the problem in various ways to see what reactions you can elicit. You might get lucky and solve it inadvertently, or you may discover important insights that allow you to develop a workable solution. With trial and error, it's also important to be patient.

For example, if the problem is an oven door that isn't closing properly, you could try opening and closing it a few times first to see what happens. You could then remove everything from the inside of it and try again. Then, you might detach it from the sliders and reattach it, observing carefully as you do so. This method can then alert you to the one component that's preventing it from sliding shut properly. Once you've located the component, you might be able to reposition, repair or replace it.


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