Teaching everyday problem-solving skills

By D. Keith Denton

Executive Summary
Some may look around and think the 21st century has seen the death of problem-solving skills in the general populace. Issues that may have been trivial in the past often occupy the time of middle and high-level managers. But employers have a number of options at their disposal to increase the prevalence of problem-solving mindsets in their workforce.

For organizational success, people at every level should be able to solve problems and think critically. According to survey results in recent years, executives have said they have articulated these skills and competencies within their organizations as priorities for employee development, talent management and succession planning. In fact, the majority in an American Management Association report agreed that their employees are measured in communication skills (80.4 percent), critical thinking (72.4 percent), collaboration (71.2 percent), and creativity (57.3 percent) during annual performance appraisals.

However, there’s plenty of evidence from the workforce and educational fronts that employees are not coming to business with such skills in hand. This evidence is easy to find – just go out to eat, shop or visit teachers in your area to discover what real practitioners are thinking. Ryan McDonald is part owner and manager for an upscale restaurant, Trolley’s, in downtown Springfield, Mo. He has been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years. He sees the young people coming into the workforce, ranging in age from 20 to 28 years old, and says, "It seems like many have not been taught problem-solving skills." As an example, he narrates a story about an employee who was having trouble with a flashlight.

"The flashlight wasn’t working," McDonald said. "[The employee] had placed new batteries in the flashlight and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working." He worked on it for about five or 10 minutes and then said, "There’s no way. This thing is broken." McDonald unscrewed the flashlight, took out the light bulb, put in a new light bulb, and the device worked. The employee was amazed at how that was accomplished. Years ago, McDonald said, employees would do everything they could to figure out what the problem was before they announced that they needed help. McDonald believes that all too often people look for somebody else to do it if they can’t figure it out in 20 seconds or so.

Such issues might sound trivial, but managers who face these problems daily say they take their efforts away from their true jobs of running their organizations, looking for new opportunities and managing higher-order operations. Whether this lack of basic problem-solving stems from changes in society, the advent of the Internet or the subject matter emphasized by the U.S. educational system, it leaves businesses in the business of teaching these skills to their charges.

'Google it'

McDonald smiles and says the flashlight episode is not an isolated incident. He continually is amazed at the lack of resolve displayed by many 20-somethings. If you ask them to go find something, and it’s not in that exact place, they don’t look very much longer before they return and announce that they can’t find the necessary item. Employees often go directly to managers, relying on them to find things or come up with a solution, when a little more time spent looking for the item or a solution to the problem would have saved a lot of hassle.

With the rise of the Internet, if it’s not on Google, then all too often many don’t know how to do it. Without instruction manuals, workers often can’t get their necessary tasks done. And even with instruction manuals, many people can’t fill in the processes between each step, McDonald said. Faced with a table, four legs and four screws, workers used to grab hold of a screwdriver and figure out where to put the screws. These aren’t the frustrated musings of one manager. Just randomly ask anyone who is dealing with today’s workforce.

Faith East is a veteran second-grade teacher in Springfield, Mo., who has noted a marked change in her charges through the years. She believes the change in our perspective has a lot to do with how easy it has become to live. She also thinks it’s the instant aspect of our lives that is one of the problems. Let’s go over to the microwave, and we can get our food in three minutes. We can visit the drive-through window and get our food as fast as they can give it to us, and we can even go to the bank and put in our ATM card and get money as fast as the machine can dish it out. The instantaneous ability to get whatever we want, combined with the fact that people want to be entertained because there’s so much entertainment, results in people who move on rather than take a few minutes to solve problems. To keep your mind from atrophying, you do have to use it once in a while and take time to think about things.

Problem-solving and critical thinking refers to the ability to use knowledge, facts and data to solve problems effectively. This doesn’t mean that you need to have an immediate answer; it means you have to be able to think on your feet, assess problems and find solutions.

So how are colleges doing at teaching basic problem-solving skills? McClatchy News Service reported about a landmark study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college. Led by a New York University sociologist, the study found that large numbers learned neither critical thinking nor complex reasoning. Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills.

The results of such studies, combined with listening to managers like McDonald and teachers like East, can be distressing. In today’s world we grow increasingly dependent on someone else doing work for us. This can lead to us becoming too dependent on letting someone else do our thinking and our problem-solving. It is easy to become too dependent on our technology or let others solve something we should solve ourselves. But it’s not too late for what we can teach and what we can learn.

Many, like the ones quoted here, believe that many workers have the attitude of, "What is the least I need to do?" If that is true, you really do have to worry about America’s long-term success if we lose our ability to solve problems and to think critically. It is on all of us to encourage those we supervise or work with to figure it out. In a society that has instant access to information and solutions, it is time to demand we teach and require them to solve the problem themselves.

Everyone experiences problems from time to time. Some of our problems are big and complicated, while others can be solved more easily. There is also no shortage of challenges and issues that can arise on the job. Whether in an office, on a construction site or in a room full of engineers experiencing difficulties with the tasks at hand or with co-workers, the workplace presents ongoing challenges on a daily basis.

Teaching critical thinking and problem-solving

Many problem-solving tools are designed to help you think differently or turn the situation around to see it from a different light. A couple of ways to do this include making use of analogies and the world of metaphor. The following is a brief description of analogies and metaphors. Try them out and encourage others to start making use of them. You could find that they open up a whole world of new possibilities for your workforce. So let’s look at how to use them.

Analogies are a comparison of things that are essentially dissimilar but are shown through analogy to have some similarity. Using an analogy lets you apply facts, knowledge or technology from the other field to your problem. So try it out. Write out the analogy. Determine any insights or potential solutions that the analogy yields. To use it, think of a problem you are having, compare the problem to something else and then ask yourself what insights or potential solutions the analogy suggests.

Metaphors, on the other hand, are a figure of speech in which two different thoughts are linked by some point of similarity. All metaphors are simple analogies, but not all analogies are metaphors. Similes are specific types of metaphors that use the word like or as. An example would be "the wind cuts like a knife."

In a direct analogy, facts, knowledge or technology from one field are applied to another field. Take the fields of biology and robotics. Researchers might examine the biology of spiders, insects or other creatures in their drive to improve the agility of robots. So think about choosing a field of science or area of endeavor that could provide an analogy to your problem.Managers also can consider a more step-by-step approach. 

Management by the fundamental question

The problem-solving exercise "management by the fundamental question" was explored in the author’s Toolbox for the Mind: Finding and Implementing Creative Solutions. It can be used by one person or with groups, departments, functional areas or throughout an entire organization. It is designed to help people get on the same wavelength.

Have the group begin discussions about who they are. Have them agree on a definition of what you are trying to accomplish and how you are going to go about doing it. This is an ongoing activity that helps keep people focused on the goal of the organization. The rationale for this exercise is that it is impossible to produce solid improvements and innovations if you do not know what you are trying to improve. Thus defining "who you are" is a fundamental first step. Management by the fundamental question is a mental exercise that is best done in a small group. Each step should be agreed upon and openly discussed. Begin with the following questions:

  • Who are we? This is your point of view as an organization, what you are most proud of, your core values.
  • Where are we going? This is what enterprises call their strategy or mission. Unlike who you are, this does not change, but it depends upon your competition, your customers’ needs and technological advances. This sets a marker in front of you, i.e., "We will be in the top two in this field," or "We will attain a 64 percent market share."
  • What do we do? Benchmarking, performance measurement and customer satisfaction so that you know where you stand.
  • Why do we do it? Garner feedback and reflect on it. Are we still headed the right way, or do we need to reassess?
  • How do we do it? Your enterprise’s nitty-gritty operations, standard operating procedures, policies and methods.
  • How are we doing? Along with the financials, nonfinancials, such as performance measurement and efficiency, are just as important.
  • How can we improve? This could include training, restructuring, finding additional strategic partners, empowering employees. And if things aren’t working, it could mean revisiting strategic and operational issues.

In addition, the ABCs of problem-solving are designed to get creative efforts focused on the right area. The first step is to ask general open-ended questions, followed by more specific ones. Finally, these exercises conclude with closed questions that should help you identify the exact nature of the problem. Below, the ABCs for how to encourage productivity also include a "D" for things that distract from creative problem-solving.

In step A, teams formulate problem statements. Problem statements are means to ends, not the ends themselves. Often a problem statement will not lead directly to a good solution but rather to another problem statement that will produce a breakthrough. It is impossible to tell which problem statement will lead to the best solution. First, without evaluating them, try to generate as many statements of the problem as possible. The more statements the group generates, the greater the likelihood that one of them will lead to a creative solution. The key question to ask continually is "What are you trying to solve" or "What is our purpose?" The following is a series of questioning exercises that can also help bring out creative solutions.

In step B, we discover the problem. This probing sequence involves asking a series of questions to gain sufficient information to identify what solutions are needed. Probing questions should be used to get more details, examples and clarification.

The probing sequence can be thought of as an ever-narrowing funnel. You first ask yourself or a group a very general open question. Your objective is to encourage plenty of leeway in a response. Your next step is to follow up the key points you discovered by asking a more specific open question. Continue asking specific open questions until you think you have received all the information you need or have discovered the underlying issues that need solutions. Your final step is to ask a closed question to verify if your conclusions are accurate. If they prove to be incorrect, begin again with a general open question.

As an example of a probing sequence, a general open question could be, "What problems are we having with the process?" Then, you probe deeper by asking a specific open question, such as, "What was the problem with that step?" Then, you can ask a closed question, for example, "So did the light come on when the machine stopped?" With a clearly defined problem, it is time to seek some creative solutions. This step, or "C," can be achieved best by using the following mental exercises that encourage creativity:

  • Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes
  • Assuming you know nothing about what solution is needed
  • Actively trying to understand what people are saying
  • Asking dumb questions
  • Wanting to listen
  • Being open to suggestions
  • Checking out the conditions that caused the problem
  • Involving everyone in the process while listening for a solution
  • Providing quick feedback and acting on what you have heard

Step C can be short-circuited by hijacking the process. For the best solutions, avoid the "D" activities, which include staying with your preconceived ideas, assuming that you know what is best because you are the expert or have done it this way and it has always worked, hearing what you want to hear, assuming that you ought to know the solution already and taking the attitude that you will listen if you must.

Leaders and managers also can inhibit the problem-solving process by pushing their own agendas or ideas, assuming that they know the cause of the problem and by giving infrequent, slow and irrelevant feedback.

D. Keith Denton is a professor of management at Missouri State University. He earned his Ph.D. at Southern Illinois University in 1982. Denton has had more than 150 articles and 14 books published. He has been a practicing management consultant and university professor for more than 20 years. 


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