The problem solver sees a problem as having two essential features. A solution, or resolution, and an obstacle which prevents them from getting there.

Solving the problem, simply put, is moving from the latter to the former.

Those who are not problem solvers, let the obstacle simply block their path.

What are problem solving skills?

Problem solving is valued highly in our economy, and is something evaluated for in school, university and the workplace. Employers hope that every new recruit brings a fresh perspective to old ‘problems’, or challenges, that their business faces.

Working out a candidate’s ability to solve problems is therefore a big part of the recruitment process.

As a result, demonstrating strong problem solving skills can be the secret to success when applying for a job, and throughout your subsequent career.

Here we explore why problem solving is so important, what you can do to best demonstrate your abilities, and how you can go about improving your skills.  

Why is problem solving so important?

Employers rate problem solving skills so highly because the core ingredients are relevant to virtually any job role.

Problem solving is a test of your aptitude for assessing situations and analysing information.

No manager wants to hire someone who can’t think for themselves and comes running every time something goes wrong. Workplace challenges always require resolution and employers are on the lookout for candidates who can come up with, and execute, effective solutions.

Some jobs involve high levels of formal problem solving – anything technical involving IT or engineering will require you to be an expert problem solver, probably using mathematics. That said, any service-based role will require you to solve problems of a different kind on a daily basis.

No matter the sector, industry, or job function, challenges and problems that you need to solve will occur regularly, and will often be the measure of your success in the role.

What are employers looking for?

Problem solving requires a combination of both analytical and creative thinking. Employers will want to see that you can use both of these to take the initiative and create positive results. 

Workplace problems range from small job-specific tasks to broader, more complex challenges such as finding out why a company’s sales have fallen in the last quarter.

Recruiters are on the lookout for the following skills and qualities:

  • Research and fact-finding

  • Data analysis

  • Creativity and innovative thinking

  • Ideation and imagination

  • Collaboration, teamwork, and leadership

  • Communication and reporting

  • Determination

  • Focus

  • Time management

  • Level-headedness

Problem solvers are people who can come up with creative and effective solutions to identified problems, recognising what needs to be done before taking action. Employers are looking for people who are comfortable with making decisions and are confident enough in their own abilities to take responsibility for how they rise to challenges in the workplace.  

They want people who can gather relevant information to inform their decisions and analyse situations to find out the best way to come through the situation. They also want people who persevere despite difficulties and keep working hard to secure a positive result.

The problem solver will always:

  1. Define the problem

  2. Generate various ideas to solve it

  3. Evaluate these ideas and select the most efficient and effective option

  4. Implement the solution in a timely manner

  5. Assess the solution and learn for the future

Employers expect you to demonstrate that you have solved problems in the past, so if you’re applying for a job which specifies you need problem-solving skills it’s a good idea to highlight your previous experience in your CV and cover letter, and to arrive at the interview prepared to present yourself as a problem solver.

How to demonstrate that you’re a problem solver 

One of the most common ways that employers expect you to evidence problem-solving skills is through behavioural interview questions on how you have solved problems in the past.

They will ask questions such as “tell me about a difficult situation you have faced in the past”, “describe a time when you came up with new ideas to tackle a workplace challenge”, or “tell me about a time when you identified a need at work and fulfilled it”.

In order to prepare for questions such as these, you will need to spend some time thinking about when you have solved problems in your previous work or education. Try to come up with one or two scenarios where you have really excelled and take notes about your memories of this time. 

Employers assume that how you have handled problems in the past is a good indicator of how you will solve them in the future as their employee.

The most important point to focus on is how you solved the problem, and in order to do this it can a good idea to consider the STAR method:

S – Situation

T – Task

A – Action

R – Result

Using this sequence will give enough context so that your interviewer can understand the situation, while not overloading them with irrelevant information. 

If problem-solving is an integral part of the position, employers may even ask you to take psychometric tests to measure your skills. These tests focus on your ability to logically and rationally think through numerical, spatial, or linguistic problems. They may be used in combination with personality tests to measure both your critical and creative thinking skills. 

There are a number of websites such as Job Test Prep and Psychometric Success that offer sample tests so you can use for practice ahead of time.

How to improve your problem-solving skills

There are many different methods and tools which elaborate the process of problem-solving, helping us learn from past successes (and failures).

For a start, try to be more aware of what problem-solving entails, and when you’re doing it.

When a problem or challenge is proving difficult, re-phrasing can be a good way to open things up. Re-phrasing the question helps you to focus on generating solutions rather than feeling blocked by the obstacle in your way. 

For example, if your problem is that you lack funds to start a new project, thinking “I can’t start this project because I don’t have the money” is a bit of a creative dead end. Turn this into a different, but potentially easier, problem like “how can I start the project without money?”.

Re-phrasing can help you to see the bigger picture and rule out unworkable angles from which to tackle it.

A more formal option is the Simplex Process. This is an elaborate method for sourcing and analysing the information you need, and can be very helpful if you are faced with a complex workplace problem. 

Breaking the problem down into different stages usually helps you to focus in on the essentials, and stops you being overwhelmed by too much information.

Whichever method or tool you choose to employ, remember to record your problem-solving wins for the future, and to learn as much as you can from your losses.