Industry 4.0 is firmly here. Going forward, our offices, work rhythms and career trajectories will present a stark contrast to what we are used to. The hierarchy of pedigreed degrees and technical knowledge is no longer sufficient to forecast exceptional performance, or secure a job.

The old is on its way out, but the new competencies that employers value are still a hazy area. Professionals are caught in between. In an eight-part series, conceived from conversations in classrooms and at mentoring sessions, we are presenting ideas that we hope will help young professionals identify with the requirements which are critical for success in today’s world of work.

Problem solving

A key attribute needed today is the ability to solve problems that are increasingly ambiguous, complex, unstructured and unanticipated. These tend to require multiple areas of expertise to solve, and sometimes even multiple areas of expertise to identify the problem itself. More than finding neat solutions, professionals will be evaluated on how they think about a problem.

For example, a civil engineer building a bridge is no longer expected only to come up with merely an engineering solution. Many other aspects, such as environmental impact, flow of traffic, effect on the local community, regulatory requirements, and cost of the project, are critical dependencies to factor in as well.

Which is why defining the problem, understanding the context that frames the problem, and clearly setting expectations around what constitutes a successful outcome, have become as important as solving a problem.

In fact, asking the right question is a critical first step. People jump headlong into an answer without giving themselves a chance to understand, or listen, to the problem. Take a step back and ask: What is the scope? What are people expecting from me, by way of a solution? How will success be measured?

Thinking critically is essential to doing this right. It is vital to tease out connections, correlations and interdependencies; to question assumptions, biases and generalizations. Most problems have to be approached from all sides and angles. The greater the number of perspectives, the better the likely solution.

Employers know, even if they don’t tell you, that there is usually no right answer, forget one right answer, to a given problem. What’s more, eight times out of ten, what you have chosen to implement might not work. You’re never really done solving a problem. You can only get one step closer to a potential answer.

Given that our education system is based on rewarding correct answers, or answers to predetermined questions, we’re not used to thinking this way. The best way to attempt solutions is to use an iterative process. You will find several problem-solving methodologies and critical-thinking frameworks online to introduce you to the main traits of building the habit of thinking this way.

We recommend getting acquainted with the principles of design thinking, which should not be the preserve of designers and innovators alone. At its core, it is an integrated approach to problem solving.

Consciously apply some frameworks and force yourself to structure a problem in different ways. Get into the habit of drawing mind maps and knowledge trees to figure out how you analyse the problem. It is also helpful to understand how to take into account the views of multiple stakeholders, and continuously get feedback for improvement.

The thing to remember when solving a problem is that just developing an answer isn’t enough. You can’t define the problem well, convey your solution, or get people aligned to what you are recommending without communicating well. Communication skills play a key role in problem solving, whether it is asking questions to zero in on the problem, listening carefully to understand different viewpoints, or deploying storytelling to syndicate a solution.

The ability to approach problems more deliberately, using some of the aspects we have mentioned, can be built into a habit. It needs conscious effort till it becomes an intuitive exercise.

To get started, take a problem you are facing at work right now. Apply some of the above, and see if it helps.

This is the first in the eight-part Art of Work series on building a fulfilling career. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is a business author who now works in higher education.

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