Whether you’re dealing with a creative block on a personal project or you’re facing challenges in the workplace, finding sustainable solutions to problems is an integral part of personal and professional growth. As the British-Australian philosopher Karl Popper once said, “all life is problem-solving.”
As important as problem-solving is to success, not all approaches are created equal. The best problem-solving strategies ensure both efficiency (finding a solution as quickly as possible, with the minimum number of barriers) and effectiveness (finding a solution that actually solves the problem long-term).
To accomplish both, you may need to try out some new ways of seeing and handling challenges. Here are 8 surefire problem-solving strategies that work, no matter what you’re struggling with.
1. Break It Down Into Smaller Pieces
Staring down a big problem can feel overwhelming, especially when the stakes are high. That sense of overwhelm doesn’t just cause you to feel on edge, but it also compromises your ability to work effectively. Studies show when the stress response is active, the part of the brain required for problem-solving tasks essentially shuts down.
To ease that stress and enlist the much-needed logical part of your brain, try breaking the problem down into smaller, individual issues you feel more confident tackling. For example, if you’ve missed your revenue goal two quarters in a row, try to resist framing the problem as “we’re losing money.”
Instead, identify the individual problems contributing to the larger one—for example, marketing, supply chain, or communication issues that may be at play. Then, work—slowly but surely—to overcome barriers in each area, ideally, in order of importance. Not only will you feel less stressed in the process (which leads to smarter decision-making), but you’ll also feel more motivated to press on as you gain a sense of accomplishment, one step at a time.
2. Ask Someone Else for Input
I remember it clearly: I was sitting in my office, staring at the computer screen, trying to figure out where I went wrong in a line of code. Two hours in, and I wasn’t any closer to figuring out where I’d messed up (and, more importantly, how to fix it). Then, a colleague I’d planned to have lunch with came in. Almost instantaneously, she looked over my shoulder and saw the issue. I had to laugh—she hadn’t even been working on this project with me, but her fresh set of eyes solved my problem.
One of the most effective ways to reach a solution, faster? Don’t rely only on your own mind for an “aha” moment. Involving people who see the world differently than you—ideally, someone with a different skillset or from a different department—to chime in will help you more easily and quickly find the right approach.
3. Understand the Root Cause
Albert Einstein famously said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
It sounds like common sense, but it bears repeating—you can’t solve a problem unless you know what the issue actually is. Before you start mapping out potential solutions, ask yourself, “why did this problem occur in the first place?”
For example, imagine one department in your business is consistently not meeting its goals. That’s certainly a problem, but it may not be the problem. When you dig a little deeper, you might find a need for better communication or more training.
Ensuring you have a deep and accurate understanding of what’s causing the problem will save you time working toward a solution and prevent you from having to backtrack to find a better one.
4. Define Success
One of the most important things I’ve learned as an entrepreneur: start with a clear vision of success. Before I launched my business, I envisioned what people’s lives would be like if my product succeeded. I try to follow the same approach when I’m tackling challenges.
Begin the problem-solving process with a clear understanding of what “success” would look like when the problem is solved. How will your company and team function if this problem isn’t an issue anymore?
Once you see how you want things to be, you can work backward to find practical ways to achieve that vision. For example, if you’re consistently frustrated by low morale among your employees, imagine what a motivated, positive team would look like in everyday operations. What do you want to achieve, and how would it change the course of your business?
By picturing your ideal situation, you can more easily pinpoint the steps you need to take to make it happen—in this case, perhaps implementing team-building events, more paid vacation, and incentives for reaching goals.
5. Try Silent Brainstorming
Enlisting other people’s perspectives can be a good way to find the answer you’re looking for. But if you’re attempting to tackle a problem with others, keep in mind the dynamic of the group.
Think back to your last Zoom or in-person meeting. Whose ideas do you end up hearing or applying most often? If I kept a running tab, I’d guess my most outgoing, assertive team members “win” these brainstorming sessions most often—simply because they’re not afraid to speak up.
If you’re hitting a wall in problem-solving, you’ll need to find a way to hear everyone’s voice. One way to do that is a silent brainstorming session. Invite team members to spend a designated amount of time coming up with solutions for the same problem. Then, have them share their approaches and ideas in front of the group, or individually with you.
When everybody has a chance to contribute equally—without the distraction of a lively discussion—you’ll be more likely to develop an effective problem-solving strategy and find the answer you’ve been looking for.
6. Imagine Someone Else’s Perspective
Can’t get a group together but feeling like you need someone else’s brain to solve the problem you’re struggling with? One of my favorite problem-solving strategies is to use someone else’s perspective to see all sides of a problem and potential solutions.
As you brainstorm, imagine you’re sitting at a table with different personality types and thinkers—for example, a critic, an optimist, an artist, and a data analyst. You can think of real people you know and imagine how they’d respond to the problem, or you can simply imagine people who think differently than you.
The idea is that by using your own creativity to adopt different perspectives on the same issue, you can more quickly reach an effective solution.
7. Decide What Won’t Work
Process of elimination can be a helpful tool when you’re trying to figure out how to overcome a challenge—mostly so you don’t waste time “reinventing the wheel.”
Next time you come up against a problem at work, ask yourself (or someone else) if you or anyone else in the organization have encountered similar issues in the past. If so, what are the solutions people tried, and more importantly, did they work? If not, cross it off the list and keep brainstorming.
If the past solutions proved to be effective, then ask yourself one more question: “Do I have the resources to apply this solution in my current situation?” If the answer is “yes,” then you have a resource at hand—and you just saved yourself some time.
8. Take Breaks
It might sound counterproductive to step away from a problem you’re trying to solve, but doing so can actually save you time and help you develop an even better solution.
Sometimes called the “wanderer technique,” taking breaks has long been shown in research to boost creativity and attention span.
When you’re focused on (and stressed about) a problem, your brain can grow fatigued, which prevents you from finding innovative ways to deal with the issue. On the other hand, when you step away and think about or do something else, your brain can wander. Given some stress-free time with your unconscious mind, you can make connections you wouldn’t have if you were staring at a screen or notebook.
As common as it is to encounter challenges at work and in life, it can be frustrating to spend time finding solutions, especially if you’re not sure if the solutions will be effective. By approaching your problem-solving with a bit of strategy and intention, you can both save time and find better solutions. It’s a win-win!
Just follow these 8 surefire problem-solving strategies and you’ll have higher chances of overcoming obstacles in your journey to success.
More Problem-Solving Strategies for Overcoming Challenges
Featured photo credit: Annie Spratt via unsplash.com