How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills (and Show Them Off in Your Job Hunt)

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills (and Show Them Off in Your Job Hunt) was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.

Problem-solving skills are critical for any career path—no matter where you work or what job you have, you’ll face problems big and small all the time. If you want to succeed in your career, being able to effectively navigate (and solve!) those problems is a must. And if you’re on the job hunt, showcasing your problem-solving skills can help you land your dream gig.

But what, exactly, are problem-solving skills? What can you do to improve them? And if you’re looking for a new position, how can you show off your problem-solving skills during your job search to help you land an awesome job?

Consider this your guide to all things problem-solving. Let’s get started.

What Are Problem-Solving Skills and Why Are They Important?

“Problem-solving skills are skills that allow you to identify and define a situation that needs changing,” says Doug Noll, an attorney and adjunct faculty member at the Straus Institute of Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University’s Caruso School of Law, where he teaches graduate-level classes in decision-making and problem-solving. Once you identify what needs changing, problem-solving skills also enable you to “identify the best outcomes, define potential processes for achieving the best outcomes, and evaluate how the process achieved (or failed to achieve) the desired outcome,” he says. “Every job imaginable involves problem-solving.”

Being able to effectively solve problems can help you succeed and impress, regardless of what kind of job you have or career you plan to pursue. “A person who sorts out problems and makes decisions—or at least brings potential solutions to the table—is seen as someone who can get things done,” says organizational consultant Irial O’Farrell, author of the upcoming book The Manager’s Dilemma: How to Empower Your Team’s Problem Solving. “This makes managers’ lives easier—and managers notice people who make their lives easier, who get things done, and who don’t have to be told [what to do] the whole time. In turn, opportunities are put their way, enhancing their career.”

And the further you progress in your career, the more important those skills become, Noll says. “As you rise in an organization, the problems become more complex, ambiguous, uncertain, and risky. Only people able to solve these types of problems are promoted.” So as you hone your problem-solving skills, you become more valuable to any organization—and will be able to climb the ladder more easily as a result.

The 6 Steps of Problem-Solving—and the Skills You Need for Each One

Problem-solving is a process. And, like any process, there are certain steps you need to take in order to get to the finish line:

Step #1: Identify and Assess the Problem

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. So “the first step is to recognize that an issue—or potential issue—exists,” O’Farrell says. In order to do that, you’ll need “a certain amount of knowledge or awareness of what should be happening as compared to what is actually happening.”

Once you recognize there’s a problem, you’ll need to evaluate its potential impact. “Is this going to affect three people or 203 people? Is this going to cost us $10 or $100,000? How material is this issue?” O’Farrell says. “Being able to evaluate the size, impact, and costs [of a problem] is a key skill here.”

When you understand the scope of the problem, you’ll have a better idea of what you’re dealing with—and will be able to come up with appropriate, relevant solutions as a result.

Skills needed during this step of the problem-solving process include:

  • Analysis
  • Attention to detail
  • Data collection
  • Forecasting

Step #2: Get to the Source of the Problem

Once you know what the problem is (and what its potential impact might be), it’s time to figure out where the problem is coming from or why it’s happening—as identifying the source of the problem will give you key insights into how to fix it.

“Often we notice a problem because of its symptoms, rather than its root cause. As a result, it is common to focus on resolving the symptoms, rather than what is causing the symptoms,” O’Farrell says. But “by understanding the root causes, a better, longer-term solution can be identified.”

There are a variety of techniques to help you dig deeper and understand what’s causing the problem at hand. For example, a 5 Whys analysis could help you uncover the root cause of a problem by having you ask “Why?” five times in a row, with each “Why?” building off the previous answer. Or you might try the fishbone diagram—also known as a cause-and-effect analysis—which encourages looking at the different categories that could be causing a problem and brainstorming potential root causes within each of those categories.

During this stage of the problem-solving process, curiosity is key; you’ll need it to explore all the different factors that could be contributing to the problem.

Skills needed during this step of the problem-solving process include:

  • Analysis (including root-cause analysis)
  • Brainstorming
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Curiosity
  • Deduction
  • Research

Step #3: Brainstorm Potential Solutions

Once you’ve identified the problem (and the root of the problem), “the next step is to brainstorm potential options that will resolve it,” O’Farrell says.

How much brainstorming you’ll need to do will depend on the problem you’re dealing with. “If it’s a fairly small, straightforward issue, then identifying a few options might be sufficient,” O’Farrell says. Especially for a bigger issue, “Taking some time to think beyond the obvious might lead to a better and longer-term solution.”

The size and scope of the problem will also determine who needs to be involved in this step. In some cases, you may be able to brainstorm solutions yourself. But if you’re dealing with a larger, more complex issue, getting more people involved (and choosing the right people, i.e. those best equipped to handle the problem) is important. You’ll need to be able to judge what kind of problem it is and who to bring in to help and lead a productive brainstorming session.

One of the most important skills you’ll draw on at this stage is creativity. The more creative you are during your brainstorm, the more (and better) potential solutions you’ll be able to come up with—and the more likely one of those solutions will be the solution you’re looking for.

Skills you might need during this step of the problem-solving process include:

  • Brainstorming
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • Judgment
  • Listening
  • Meeting facilitation
  • Patience
  • Teamwork

Step #4: Evaluate Solutions

Once you have a list of potential solutions from your brainstorming session, the next step is to examine each one carefully and narrow down your list so only the best solutions remain.

In order to succeed during this stage of the problem-solving process, you’ll need to be able to dig into each potential solution and evaluate how viable it is. You may make a pros and cons list for each potential solution, talk through the benefits and drawbacks with your team, and then narrow down your options to the solutions that have the most potential upsides.

All the work you put into the problem-solving process up to this point will also come in handy as you’re evaluating which of your potential solutions might ultimately be the most effective. “Having a strong understanding of what the issue is, why it’s an issue, and what is causing it helps in being able to determine if each of the solutions will sort the issue out,” O’Farrell says.

Skills needed during this step of the problem-solving process include:

  • Analysis
  • Fact-checking
  • Forecasting
  • Prioritization
  • Research
  • Teamwork

Step #5: Choose the Best Solution

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential solutions—and weighed the pros and cons of each—it’s time for you (or your supervisor or another decision-maker) to choose one.

“Depending on the type and impact of the issue and your role and authority, you may be the one making the decision or you may be presenting the issue and potential solutions to your boss,” O’Farrell says.

Knowing who should make the call is a key part of this step; if the problem is complex or will have a major impact on your organization that goes beyond your level of responsibility, it’s probably best to bring potential solutions to your boss and/or other stakeholders—and give them the final say.

Skills needed during this step of the problem-solving process include:

  • Analysis
  • Communication
  • Decision-making
  • Judgment
  • Persuasion
  • Prediction
  • Public speaking
  • Teamwork

Step #6: Implement the Decision and Reflect on the Outcome

Choosing a solution in and of itself doesn’t fix anything. You need to actually implement that solution—and do it well. That means developing a plan and coordinating with other key players in your organization to put that plan into action—which requires a host of skills (such as communication, collaboration, and project management).

Before you can hang up your problem-solving hat, you’ll also need to “go back and evaluate if the solution sorted out the issue” or if it caused any unintended consequences, O’Farrell says.

For example, let’s say your organization has a problem with taking too long to address customer service requests—and you rolled out a new ticket management system in order to deal with the issue. Once you implement that new system, you’ll want to follow up to make sure it’s allowing your customer service reps to deal with requests faster and hasn’t caused any new, different, or unexpected issues (for example, tickets getting lost in the queue or customers being less satisfied with the quality of support they received).

Skills needed during this step of the problem-solving process include:

  • Adaptability
  • Analysis
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Data analysis
  • Delegation
  • Feedback
  • Goal setting
  • Organization
  • Project management
  • Project planning
  • Time management

How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

Clearly, solving problems is a complex process—and it’s a process you need to nail if you want to grow in your career. But how can you improve your problem-solving skills so they can help you thrive in your career?

  • Put on your student hat. One of the best ways to improve here is to study how to effectively solve problems. “Read case studies of complex problems,” Noll says. (For example, if you want to land a marketing job, you might search for case studies on how other companies were able to increase their qualified leads or drive more traffic to their website.) Noll also suggests reading books about different problem-solving techniques—or, if you really want to level up your skills, investing in a general course in critical thinking and problem-solving. “A good course should teach you how to think,” he says—and critical thinking plays a huge role in problem-solving.
  • Try different brainstorming techniques. If you want to be a better problem solver, try pushing yourself to think outside of the box. “Learning some brainstorming techniques and expanding your thinking beyond the obvious solutions is also a way to make your problem-solving skills stand out,” O’Farrell says. Brainstorming techniques like brainwriting (a nonverbal brainstorming technique for teams) or rapid ideation (which pushes you to come up with as many ideas as possible in a short time frame) can help spark creative thinking—and help you become a more creative problem solver in the process.
  • Ask expert problem-solvers how they solve problems. People in your professional (or personal!) life who excel at solving problems can be a great resource for leveling up your own problem-solving skills. “Talk to senior mentors about how they approached complex problems,” Noll says. “Get them to talk about their failures and mistakes,” he says, not just their successes. Seeing how other people solve problems and what they’ve learned from their experiences can help you approach problems in a different way and can make you a more versatile problem solver.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Like with anything else, if you want to improve your problem-solving skills, you need to practice solving problems. “Most people jump to the easy, intuitive answer rather than [carefully thinking] through the problem,” O’Farrell says. So next time you’re confronted with a problem, rather than jump to a hasty solution, take your time to go through the entire problem-solving process. And if you don’t have any real problems to deal with? Attempting to solve hypothetical problems can be just as helpful.

How to Show Off Your Problem-Solving Skills During the Job Search

Recruiters and hiring managers are looking for people with problem-solving skills who can help them, their team, and their company achieve their goals even in the face of obstacles and setbacks. So if you want to stand out, nail the interview, and score the job, you’ll need to showcase your problem-solving skills throughout your job search.

Here are a few ways to show off your problem-solving skills:

On a Resume

You can show potential employers that you’re a problem solver right on your resume. As you write your bullets for each past job and other experiences, “Incorporate one main challenge that you had to overcome, and give a brief synopsis of how you approached it, what the solution was and, most importantly, what the positive outcome was,” O’Farrell says.

For example, let’s say you’re a marketing manager and you had to figure out a way to launch a new product with a minimal budget. Under your current role, you might include a bullet point that says:

  • Launched new sunscreen line across digital and traditional channels with <$10,000 budget by exploring up-and-coming distribution channels and negotiating wide-scale distribution agreements, bringing in $60,000 in new product sales within 90 days of launch

O’Farrell also recommends using action verbs (likeanalyze,” “evaluate,” or “identify”) to call out your problem-solving skills on a resume.

In a Cover Letter

In your cover letter, you’ll have more room and flexibility to showcase your problem-solving skills—and you should definitely take advantage of the opportunity.

Noll suggests using your cover letter to tell a quick story (think two to three sentences) about when and how you’ve solved a relevant problem. In your story, you want to include:

  • What the problem was
  • How you approached it/came to a solution
  • What the outcomes of your problem-solving were
  • What lessons you learned

Another strategy is to highlight how you would use your problem-solving skills within the context of the role you’re applying for. “I’d recommend reviewing the job description and identifying what types of problems you might have to deal with in the role,” O’Farrell says. Then you can speak directly to how you might approach them.

For example, let’s say you’re applying for an executive assistant position that requires extensive scheduling and calendar management for an exec who is often traveling for business. In that situation, you might explain how you’d solve the problem of scheduling while the exec is out of office (for example, by developing an appointment approval system that allows the exec to approve all appointment requests remotely, with a plan for how to notify the exec of appointment requests that need immediate attention).

During Interviews

The interview process offers the best opportunity for your problem-solving skills to shine, so you’ll want to come prepared.

“In preparation for the interview, select two to three situations where you used your problem-solving skills,” O’Farrell says. That way, when the interviewer asks you for examples of problems you’ve faced in your career—and how you solved them—you’ll have relevant stories ready. If you’re not sure how to tell your story effectively, the STAR method (which breaks down your story into four parts: Situation, Task, Action, and Result) can be helpful.

As a potential candidate, it’s also important to ask how you’ll need to use your skills on the job, Noll says. So you might ask the interviewers to share some of the issues or problems they’re hoping to solve by filling this position.

And if they turn around and ask you how you’d solve those problems? Don’t panic! If you have a story of a similar problem you’ve solved in the past, this is a great opportunity to share it. Otherwise, just talk through how you would approach it. Remember, the interviewers don’t expect you to come up with detailed solutions for problems their company is facing on the spot; they just want to get a sense of how you would begin to think about those problems if you were hired.