Let’s be realistic. It takes years to reach a level in your career where you’re allowed to choose the problems you’d like to work upon. Till then, you are expected to work on problems assigned to you. Make no mistake, employers hire you for your effectiveness of solving a problem, regardless of whether it is related to your expertise or experience.

Your formal education and work experience give you necessary tools and insights critical to solve some domain-specific problems. But, they don’t build skills necessary for solving the problems that are unprecedented, new, complex and arise from multiple interlinked causes. Often, there are no text book solutions or insights from the past. Add to this, the complexities of working with people with different thinking styles, asymmetry of information, and varying degrees of cognitive biases: what you have is a recipe for disaster.

No one teaches us this, but all of us need to develop a structured method to attack a problem, develop solutions and implement them. We believe you can build the habit by practising five skills, which over time can help you develop your own methodology when it comes to problem solving

Define problems: When faced with a problem, our natural instinct is one of two things: to begin offering answers and show how smart we are or to avoid or deny the problem. This psychological instinct can be extremely detrimental in workplaces. The most important thing to do when you are asked to solve a problem is to spend sufficient time understanding or defining it. How you define the problem plays a pivotal role in determining how you will end up solving it. If you don’t do this, you will waste time and resources working on the wrong problem. For example, when asked to buy a faster elevator for the office, should you start contacting vendors when the real problem your boss is trying to solve is how to reduce waiting time for employees?

Structure problems: Once a problem is accurately defined, it needs to be structured. This requires you to break the problem down into smaller manageable pieces and to attack each individually. Through this, you can uncover causal links and find the most relevant parts to focus on. This is where the famous 80/20 rule kicks in. Structuring problems will help you find the 20% of the causes that are causing 80% of the problem. For example, when asked to figure out the reasons for constant delays in a project, do you deep dive to find the specific roadblocks in different functions to find which of these are causing maximum delay?

Analyse problems: The next step is to analyse the smaller components of the problem and build a hypothesis for what could be causing them. Once you know why a problem was caused and this is backed by solid evidence, you can begin designing solutions. For example, did you test and validate an assumption about a customer behaviour that you might have assumed and taken for granted while designing a feature of a mobile app?

Create solutions: Once you know the parts of the problem to solve for, tackle them. But, creating solutions for today’s complex problems cannot follow the old textbook approach. Your solutions must factor in the products, processes, and people associated with creating and implementing the solutions. Great solutions designed on paper often become ineffective in the long run because relevant contextual factors have not been accounted for while designing them. For example, while laying out a project, did you factor in the bottlenecks, buffers, and where all uncertainties could creep in during the execution?

Take decisions: If there is a skill that impacts everything we do, yet, we remain unconsciously unskilled about, it’s the science of decision-making. We typically don’t factor in individual and group biases, aren’t aware of the psychology of choices, and rarely take decisions backed by data and reasoning. We think we are rational but end up being driven by our social and emotional reactions to problems. At the workplace, things become more complex, because people we work with, and those who will implement solutions, have their own biases and blinders. For example, when deciding whether to hire an external agency for your digital marketing, do you succumb to biases, and work with someone just because you knew them from college?

Collectively, these habits, when used in tandem, will set you up to tackle and solve problems effectively without getting overwhelmed by their nature and complexity.

Art of Work is a five-part series about habits critical to career success.

Pramath Raj Sinha and Shreyasi Singh are founders of an online learning venture that helps professionals and students build career enhancing habits.

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