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Competency: Problem Solving


  • Core Competencies
  • Problem Solving

Functional Description

Employs an analytical and creative approach to address problems, while drawing on individual & collective skills, knowledge & experience.

Content Knowledge Requirements

Understanding and knowledge of foundational theory and practices of problem solving.

Skill Requirements

Understands various problem-solving techniques.

Ethical Requirements

Ability to weigh and implement the problem solving strategies equitably.

Expertise Levels

Entry level.

Identifies the problem and considers potential solutions.

Intermediate Level

Identifies the problem and considers potential solutions. Employs multiple problem-solving strategies. Seeks assistance as necessary.

Expert Level

Employs multiple problem-solving strategies. Identifies possible explanations and alternatives, identifies the information necessary to solve a problem, anticipates obstacles, and develops contingency plans. Undertakes a complex task by breaking it down into manageable parts in a systematic, detailed way. Presents problem analysis and recommended solutions, rather than just identifying or describing the problem itself. Seeks assistance as necessary.

How to Use Our Core Competencies

The Competencies & Proficiencies are designed to be used in a variety of ways, including:

  • Crafting professional development plans for individuals or teams
  • Self-assessment and benchmarking individual professional development
  • Drafting position descriptions and evaluating office functions

The AACRAO Competencies and Proficiencies are a living resource that will continue to evolve parallel to the demands of our professions in a dynamic higher education environment. If you would like to make a suggestion for a future version, contact us at [email protected]

  • Change Management
  • Collaborative Decision-Making and Consensus-Building
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Holistic and Systemic Thinking
  • Interpretation and Application of Institutional and External Data
  • Leadership and Management
  • Professional Integrity
  • Communication
  • Technological Knowledge
  • Professional Development & Contributions to the Field
  • Professional Proficiencies
  • Career Framework
  • Success Stories
  • Career Management
  • Competencies
  • Competencies – Tips for Employees
  • Competencies – Tips for Managers
  • Accountability
  • Analytical Thinking
  • Building Relationships
  • Business Enterprise Knowledge
  • Business Process Knowledge
  • Change Advocate
  • Collaboration
  • Communication for Results
  • Developing Others
  • Information Systems Knowledge
  • Leading Others
  • Leading the Organization
  • Leading Self

Problem Solving

  • Strategic Technology Planning
  • Thoroughness
  • Career Framework Program
  • Step 1 – Initiating the Project
  • Step 2 – Aligning Job Descriptions
  • Step 3 – Collaborative Performance Developing Planning
  • Competencies by Job Description
  • Step 4 – Managing Career Development
  • Anticipates, identifies, and defines problems
  • Seeks root causes
  • Develops and implements practical and timely solutions.

What it Doesn’t Look Like

  • Addressing symptoms instead of the problem
  • Driving to solution without properly defining the problem or completing a thorough analysis
  • Using only one tool or approach to solve all problems
  • Looking at the issue from only one perspective
  • Committing to solutions too early

Questions to Consider

  • Have I clearly and accurately defined the problem?
  • Is my problem statement really a solution?
  • What techniques can I use to sort through this mess of interrelated issues?
  • What would an appreciative inquiry approach to solving this problem look like?
  • Would it be helpful to use the Simplex Process with it’s eights steps to ensure our problem is accurately defined and solution is creative, robust and complete?

Learning and Development Activities

Choose one or two activities that support your preferred learning style

(By clicking on the symbol, those activities relating to the learning style will appear)

Suggestions for activities you can do on the job

  • Select a relatively simple problem. Use the Five Whys technique to get to the root of the problem quickly. i.e. Why is….? Why were…? Why did…? Why did…? Why didn’t…?
  • Define the problem
  • Generate alternatives
  • Evaluate and select alternatives
  • Implement solutions.
  • Identify the Problem
  • Record observations (is) answering questions i.e. What is the process effected? Where do we see the problem? When did the problem occur? How big is the problem?
  • Record comparisons (is not) i.e. What other similar parts could be affected but are not? Where else could I expect to see this problem? When else could the problem have occurred? How big could it be?
  • Identify likely causes
  • Test, if a likely cause does not explain the is vs. is not data, it is not the cause
  • Use an Affinity diagram to organize different elements of information into common themes, then identify the relationship between elements
  • Use CATWOE problem solving technique with peers to stimulate thinking about a problem and/or implementing a solution. For each category come up with 3-4 questions, then work through responses to the questions together.
  • Work with a peer or group using a Cause and Effect Diagram to generate viable solutions to a problem which you already know the cause of.
  • For a business process problem, create together a Flow Chart, Swim Lane Diagram or Systems Diagram to visualize and help determine how the various activities and inputs interact. Look for missing elements and bottlenecks that may be causing the problem.

With your Manager/Team Lead

  • Work together using the Drill Down technique to separate your complex problem into smaller units, which can be solved appropriately as you uncover the factors contributing to the problem.

Here are some ideas that can be pursued on the job, with some coordination. Use these reflective questions to gain more from your learning experience:

  • What are three key things I have learned from this experience?
  • What will I do differently in my work as a result of this experience?
  • Over the next month, attend three problem solving meetings where different techniques are used. Was the technique selected effective? What worked well? How could the problem solving process have been enhanced?
  • Identify someone who is good at problem solving. Ask them to walk you through the process they use from start to finish on two different problems. What did they do that was particularly effective?

UBC Training Programs offered through Organization Development and Learning

  • Thinking Outside the Box: Connecting with the Creative Subconscious
  • Shift Happens
  • Mind Mapping

For UBCO course offerings, please visit the Events page. http://web.ubc.ca/okanagan/facultystaff/events.html

Consider working with a coach following training, to aid in anchoring your learning: http://www.hr.ubc.ca/coaching/

Choose to read one or two of the books listed below. Consider the reflective questions to enhance your learning:

  • What are the key points the author is making?
  • What are three key things I have learned from this reading?
  • What will I do differently in my work as a result of gaining this knowledge?
  • The Back of the Napkin (Expanded Edition): Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures; (2009), D. Roam; Portfolio Hardcover. There is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem. This book teaches how to clarify any problem or sell any idea using a simple set of tools. It shows how thinking with pictures can help you discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve your ability to share your insights.
  • The Memory Jogger Two; (2010), M. Brassard & D. Ritter; GOAL/QPC. An easy to use compact reference guide of tools that are useful in the problem solving process. Suggests when each tool would be most effective and provides an easy to follow example.
  • Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People; (2009), K. Watanabe; Portfolio Hardcover. teaches us to recognize the common elements in the decisions we face every day, and how to think carefully about them. It offers tricks and tips for all from Students to business leaders. The author uses sample scenarios to illustrate his techniques, which include logic trees and matrixes.

Managers/Team Leads

  • Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity; (2010), D. Sibbet; Wiley. Use eye-popping visual tools to energize your people! Just as social networking has reclaimed the Internet for human interactivity and co-creation, the visual meetings movement is reclaiming creativity, productivity, and playful exchange for serious work in groups. The book explains how anyone can implement powerful visual tools, and how these tools are being used in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to facilitate both face-to-face and virtual group work.

Additional Questions

Please contact your Human Resources Representative with any additional questions.

Summary of Links




Problem Solving

What is problem solving, problem solving is a complex mental activity that involves cognitive skills and actions to first identify the problem; analyse and evaluate the problem by applying prior experience and knowledge in the process in order to derive the most practical and fitting solution., chan, cky (2021).

Some definitions of problem solving in the literature include:

Problem solving is the process of constructing and applying mental representations of problems to finding solutions to those problems that are encountered in nearly every context (Jonassen & Hung, 2012, p. 1).

Problem solving is defined as a process, used to obtain a best answer to an unknown, or a decision subject to some constraints (Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee, 2004, p. 1).


Are You a Strong Problem Solver?

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According to Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004), a good problem solver has the following characteristics:

They are strong at identifying problems;

They can analyse and evaluate the problem thoroughly;

They are able to apply prior experience and knowledge in the problem solving process, and be flexible in the process even if it involves some trials and errors; and 

They can solve problems according to the plan or process after careful consideration of multiple perspectives.

Why is Problem Solving Important?

The importance of problem solving, especially in the workplace, has been validated for years in many studies. Problem solving is regarded as an essential competency for any employees. According to Elger, Armstrong, Beyerlein, Felicione, Fulcher, Rousseau (2001), problem solving competency is imperative to the success in workplace. Therefore, graduates are expected to well-develop their problem solving competency in higher education before starting their first career.  According to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (2021), problem solving is important because:

With good problem solving competency, your other competencies such as creativity, resilience, etc. can also be revealed;

Problem solving competency is vital for your professional and lifelong development;

With good problem solving competency, one is regarded as a valuable assets in the team;

Those with good problem solving competency are usually proactive thinker as well; and 

It is essential to have problem solving competency if you want to advance your career more quickly.

How is Problem Solving Developed?

Because of the importance of problem solving, it is essential for students to develop their problem solving competency. However, as problems are different under various contexts, there is not a standardized methodology that can be best fit for all contexts. In light of this, we narrow down to a specific context, the engineering context, before introducing a possible methodology.

Wood's Process of Problem Solving

The methodology adopted by Wood, with reference to the Professional Decision making (PDM) model (Elger, Armstrong, Beyerlein, Felicione, Fulcher, Rousseau, 2001) is specifically designed for the engineering context for problem solving. It includes six stages after engaging the problem. They are as follow:


Applying Wood's Process of Problem Solving in Teaching

Based on Wood’s Problem Solving Process Model, Wood and colleagues (1975) recommended ways in which problem solving skills can be taught at each stage in the model.

Stage 1: Define the Problem

In this stage, there are several things that teachers can do to guide students in defining the problem. Teachers can first guide students to read the problem statement and interpret useful information. Afterwards, students need to identify what exactly the problem is, the relevant knowledge that requires to solve the problem, as well as the unknown. Then, teachers also need to instruct students identify the implied constraints in the problem. Furthermore, teachers will guide students to think about what a logical answer should be for the specific problem. 

Stage 2: Explore the Problem

In this stage, teachers can guide students to develop a mental image regarding the problem they are solving. Students should have determined what background knowledge is needed in order to solve the problems. Teacher will also encourage students to start information collection that helps to solve the problem in this stage.

Stage 3: Plan a Solution

In this stage, teachers can guide students to consider all possible strategies for solving the problem. Teacher can also help students to select the best strategy for the problem and remind students the answers that students are supposed to find.

Stage 4: Carry out the Plan

Teacher can remind students to be patient and persistent while carrying out the plan. This is because we do not generally solve problems on the first attempt and therefore, teachers will need to be the one to encourage students to try solving the problem with another strategy (Woods, Wright, Hoffman, Swartman & Doig, 1975).

Stage 5 & 6: Check the Solution & Evaluate / Reflect

When students ultimately reach a solution, this is not the end. Teachers can further prompt students to reflect on whether the answers obtained correctly or effectively answer the problem or not, as well as whether they are logical or not. Teachers also need to encourage students to reflect on their learning experience regarding the problem solving process, as well as if there are more alternatives for solving the problem.

Demonstrating Wood’s Problem Solving Process in a Classroom Setting

To demonstrate how this methodology is used, Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004) has provided several examples, in which “open-ended problems from fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer” (p. 2) are studied. Here, we use the fluid mechanics problem as an example.

In Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004)’s example, students need to solve the problem in the given scenario by deciding whether the individual in the scenario is going to walk or run in the rain from the building and get into the car. The condition is that students need to find the best way that can save the clothes of the individual from getting wet. Applying the methodology introduced above, students starts by defining the criterion of the scenario (the amount of water for the clothes to absorb under both options). Then, they explore the problem by examining the issues and make assumptions for parameters (e.g. the rain droplet volume) in the problem that may affect the problem solving process. Afterwards, they start planning the solution by generating the relevant equations to calculate the amount of water that the clothes will absorb under two options (run or walk). After formulating the equation, students implement the equation by substituting the assumed values into the equation. The next step is then to check whether the calculations of the equations are accurate or not, as well as whether the units are correct or not. Finally, students check if the answers they obtain from the equation is reasonable or not. Through the answers, students revise assumptions to obtain answers that are more reasonable.

For more details about the examples above, or if you are interested in reading other examples about how students make use of the methodology introduced to solve problems, you may refer to the Mourtos, Okamoto & Rhee (2004)’s literature.

How Should I Assess Problem Solving?

Similar to the development of problem solving competency, the assessment of problem solving is not standardized as well because of the complexity of the problems, especially for ill-structured problems. There are different ways to assess students’ problem solving skills, and here are examples of some assessments which have been implemented.

Case Studies

Computing professional skills assessment (cpsa).

The case study introduced is conducted by Danaher & Schoepp (2020), using Computing Professional Skills Assessment (CPSA) as the assessment method.  This is an assessment method that enable six learning outcomes to be assessed, including problem solving, continuing learning, teamwork, communication, computing impacts, as well as legal, security and ethical aspects. This assessment instrument applies “a scenario-based asynchronous discussion board to assess student groups’ ability to problem solve” (p. 2). All the scenarios in the discussion board are ill-structured workplace problems.


Examples of Assessment Approaches for Problem Solving

As stated by Danaher & Schoepp (2020), the purposes of the research include (1) to investigate in how prevalent problem solving is within the discussions in CPSA (2) investigate in how problem solving competency are manifested based on the discussions in CPSA and (3) examine whether there are differences in how problem solving is manifested according to students’ year of study. For the assessment rubric, three criteria with six performance levels are assessed, including (1) problem identification, (2) recommendations for solutions and (3) stakeholder perspective. The study was conducted with all Emirati nationals, from different years (2nd, 3rd, 4th and master). For undergraduate samples, all are females aging from 18 to 24. While for master students, there is a mixture of samples in terms of gender, all ages 24 to 35.

This research demonstrates how the assessment method, CPSA, is effectively applied to assess problem solving. The results show that students’ level of problem solving is increased year by year (from 2nd year till master’s levels), although they did not meet the desired performance level. Senior students, especially those studying masters involve more and perform better when being assessed with their problem solving competency. One main factor for master students to perform better is because of their working experience, which allows them to better identify a problem in different perspectives. With the results assessed, this research proposes that a revision of curriculum to a more problem-based one should be considered. More integration of ill-structured problem solving should be conducted in the computing curriculum to satisfy the demand of workplace in the 21st century (Danaher & Schoepp, 2020). Students should be trained early on how to deal with ill-structured and open-ended problems.

Stealth Assessment

Apart from CPSA, another assessment method is stealth assessment. In a research conducted by Shute & Emihovich (2018), they explained howproblem solving can be assessed through stealth assessment in a game-based immersive environment. The problem solving stealth assessment is developed by Shute, Wang, Greiff, Zhao & Moore (2016) and is embedded in the game, Use Your Brainz. In this example, a four-facet problem solving competency model is developed. Associating with the four-facets, 32 observable indicators are delineated after repeatedly game playing and reviewing expert solutions. The indicators are then classified into separate scoring categories before establishing statistical relationships “between each indicator and the associated levels of the competency model variables” (p. 642).

Assessments of Problem Solving in the Workplace Setting

Similar to the assessments of problem solving in higher education, the problem solving competency of graduates are always assessed by their employers as well. As stated by Targetjobs (2021), employers apply different assessment methods such as competency-based interview questions, hypothetical interview questions, as well as problem solving tests or exercises (e.g.: ability test, game-based recruitment tests, case study exercises, etc.) to assess job candidates’ problem solving competency. If you are interested to know more on the researches mentioned, please visit the further reading session.

Further Readings

For further examples about developing problem solving or even the challenges that hinder the development of problem solving, you can refer to the following references:

Defining, teaching, and assessing problem solving skills - written by Nikos J Mourtos, Nicole Okamoto and J. Rhee​


Developing Problem Solving Skills: The McMaster Problem Solving Program - written by Donald R. Woods et al.


For more examples of assessing problem solving, you can refer to the following references:

Assessing problem solving skills in game-based immersive environments - written by Benjamin Emihovich and Valerie J. Shute


Assessment Strategies for Enhancing Students’ Mathematical Problem solving Skills: A Review of Literature - written by Fidele Ukobizaba, Gabriel Nizeyimana and Angel Mukuka


Danaher, M., & Schoepp, K. (2020). Effective Assessment of Workplace Problem Solving in Higher Education. Journal of Information Technology Education, 19. 1-16. https://doi.org/10.28945/4496

Elger, D. F., Armstrong, T. R., Beyerlein, S. W., Felicione, C. F., Fulcher, K. J., & Rousseau, P. W. (2001). A structured problem solving model for developing high-level skills. age, 6, 2.

Jonassen, D. H. (2014). Assessing problem solving. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 269-288. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-3185-5_22

Jonassen, D. H., & Hung, W. (2012). Problem Solving. Seel N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_208

Mourtos, N. J., Okamoto, N. D., & Rhee, J. (2004). Defining, teaching, and assessing problem solving skills. In 7th UICEE Annual Conference on Engineering Education. 1-5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238601642_Defining_Teaching_and_Assessing_Problem_Solving_Skills

Shute, V. J., Wang, L., Greiff, S., Zhao, W., & Moore, G. (2016). Measuring problem solving skills via stealth assessment in an engaging video game. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 106-117. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.047

Shute, V. J., & Emihovich, B. (2018). Assessing problem solving skills in game-based immersive environments. Second handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education, 635-648. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-71054-9_40

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. (2021). Problem Solving. Retrieved from: https://www.icaew.com/archive/learning-and-development/job-essential-skills/employability-skills/problem-solving

Woods, D.R., Wright, J.D., Hoffman, T.W., Swartman, R.K., Doig, I.D. (1975). Teaching Problem solving Skills. Engineering Education, 1(1). 238.

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Core Competencies - Organizational

Problem solving, definition:.

Accurately assesses problems and effectively and efficiently arrives at excellent solutions.

Key Behaviors

  • Proactively identifies the root causes of problems
  • Identifies and evaluates many possible causes for a problem
  • Notices discrepancies and inconsistencies in information related to problems
  • Asks meaningful and relevant questions to understand problems and potential causes
  • Breaks down complex problems into their fundamental parts
  • Analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions
  • Creatively comes at problems in new and different ways that lead to innovative solutions
  • Uses logical, systematic approaches to break down and solve problems

Proficiency Levels

  • Expert: Models, leads, trains, and motivates multiple levels of personnel to be excellent at problem solving.
  • Advanced: Even in the most complex situations, breaks down problems into their fundamental parts, identifies their root causes, analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions, and creatively attacks problems in ways that lead to innovative solutions.
  • Intermediate: Often breaks down problems into their fundamental parts, identifies their root causes, analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions, and creatively attacks problems in ways that lead to innovative solutions.
  • Basic: Sometimes breaks down problems into their fundamental parts, identifies their root causes, analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions, and creatively attacks problems in ways that lead to innovative solutions.
  • Awareness: Occasionally solves problems effectively and efficiently, but often fails to do so because key steps in the problem solving process are not done well.


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Problem Solving

Identifies problems and uses logic, judgment, and data to evaluate alternatives and recommend solutions to achieve the desired organizational goal or outcome.

  • Identifies and evaluates problems and possible causes to determine root causes and impacts.
  • Generates solutions, taking into consideration political, organizational and individual realities.
  • Identifies options for solving a problem and evaluates the relative strengths and weaknesses of each option.
  • Uses a logical method for organizing and analyzing information.
  • Coordinates with others within his/her network, subject-matter experts and /or additional senior staff to interpret administrative policies, offer advice and solve related problems.
  • Uses expertise in policies and procedures to identify problems, and makes recommendations for addressing these via communication, job aids, training, etc.
  • Researches issues thoroughly. Does not jump to quick conclusions or formulate opinions based on incorrect assumptions, or inaccurate/incomplete information.

Developmental opportunities for this competency are available from the NIH Training Center .

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Problem Solving Technique, Skills & Examples (2023 Guide)

What Is Problem Solving?

Examples of problem solving in the workplace, what are problem solving interview questions, why do employers want problem solving skills, how to answer problem solving interview questions in 2023 with examples, how to highlight problem-solving skills in your cv or cover letter in 2023, problem solving technique, skills & examples (2023 guide).

Updated August 20, 2023

Edward Melett

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There are many definitions of problem solving – but at a basic level, it focuses on the ability to accurately assess a situation and arrive at a positive solution.

Problem solving is an analytical skill that many employers look for when reviewing candidate application forms.

This particular skill isn’t restricted to a single sector, industry or role, though employers in the engineering and legal industries, in particular, tend to look for proficiency.

Consequently, questions about your problem-solving ability are commonplace in interviews.

Strong problem solving skills can be hugely beneficial for your career. In every sector, problems are inevitable and will arise in one form or another as you go about your day-to-day duties.

When problems do occur, employees are expected to use their initiative and develop suitable solutions to avoid the situation escalating into something more serious.

There are many situations where problems could present themselves in the workplace, from a client's concern through to assisting a technical team resolve a website or database error.

The issues that you come across will often vary in complexity, with some situations requiring a simple solution and others demanding more thought and skill to overcome.

Business managers will spend a lot of their time solving problems and consequently require their employees to be creative and intuitive when it comes to addressing them.

Being confident in your problem solving approach is really important, and as you learn which processes are most effective to overcome obstacles, so your confidence will grow.

Without suitable processes in place, your solutions may fail or they could even create additional problems.

A good problem solving process involves four fundamental stages: problem definition , devising alternatives , evaluating alternatives and then implementing the most viable solutions .

problem solving as competency

Managers are looking for recruits who can be creative and intuitive when it comes to addressing business problems.

How to Improve Problem Solving Skills in 2023: Step By Step

There are several ways you can improve problem solving skills. It helps to approach each problem through a series of logical steps.

Step 1: Define the Problem with the 5 Whys Technique

First, identify what the problem is. This requires examining a particular situation to determine what specifically is causing the problem.

Rather than looking at a problematic situation as a whole (for example, a customer is upset), try to break it down and determine the cause of the problem (why is the customer upset?).

The Five Whys (or 5 Whys) technique can be helpful here, which essentially involves asking 'why' five times to determine the root of a problem.

There may be several elements causing the problem or one specific element. Either way, breaking a problem down into smaller parts makes it much easier to solve each of the elements or issues contributing to the problem.

Step 2: Generate and Select an Alternative

Next, come up with a range of potential solutions. Techniques such as problem tree analysis and mind mapping can help to lay out problem elements and potential solutions.

Some of the potential solutions won't be as effective as others, and that's okay. The goal at this stage is to evaluate each potential solution and determine which one is likely to be the most effective at solving the problem. You may require several different solutions to solve different elements of the problem as a whole.

Step 3: Implement and Follow Up on the Solution

Once you have decided on a solution, follow a step-by-step plan to implement that solution. Just as breaking down a problem into key elements makes it easier to identify solutions, an action plan with various steps makes it easier to implement those solutions.

Questions about problem solving will typically arise within a competency -based interview and will require you to demonstrate your particular approach.

Problem solving interview questions can be asked in a range of different ways, but some common examples of problem-solving are:

  • How do you solve problems?
  • Give me an example of a problem you have faced in the past, either as part of a team or as an individual. How did you solve the problem?
  • What do you do when you can't solve a problem?

Effective problem-solving requires a combination of creative thinking and sound analytical skills . Employers look for hires who can demonstrate each of these skills in the workplace to deliver positive outcomes.

Managers would far rather employ a member of staff who can take action to resolve a problem than someone who doesn't act and relies on someone else to think of a solution. Even if it isn't outlined as a requirement in a job description, many employers will still be evaluating your problem-solving ability throughout the application process.

Effective problem solvers are those who can apply logic and imagination to make sense of the situation and develop a solution that works. Even if it doesn't prove as successful as you had hoped, resilience is important, so you can reassess the situation and try an alternative.

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What Form Do Problem-Solving Questions Take?

If problem-solving skills are an integral part of your role, it is likely that you will have to complete some kind of assessment during the application process. There are a number of forms that a problem-solving question can take, but the majority of them will be scenario-based .

Employers may base problem-solving questions around three main areas:

  • How you have approached situations in the past
  • How you would manage a problem that would arise as part of the job
  • How you handle problems throughout the application process

Past Challenges

Some employers believe that the way you approached a situation in the past is a good indicator of how you will approach a challenging situation in the future. Therefore the best way to understand how someone would respond to a specific scenario is to ask a question such as 'explain an occasion when…’

As the employer wants to assess your problem-solving skills, they may ask you to outline a situation where something went wrong and what happened. This could be an example of a time when you faced something unexpected, or you were approached by a client about a concern.

Situations Specific to the Job

Managers will often relate one or more questions to the role you are applying for. Sometimes this may take the form of a question about what the applicant would do if they had too much or too little work to complete.

These types of questions usually begin with the recruiter asking how you would deal with a specific situation followed by some kind of challenge. For example, how you would deal with a colleague who was relying on you to do all of the work or falling short of a target.

Questions Throughout the Application Process

Although these aren't questions as such, they may be used by some recruiters to see how you handle unexpected changes. This could be rearranging the time of your interview or sending an email without attaching something important. Both of these - even if they are unintentional - could be used as a way to assess how you approach something that is unforeseen.

If you know that you are likely to face problem-solving questions in the application process, it’s good practice to research the typical questions and scenarios that candidates are presented with.

This will not only increase your confidence but also help you to refine your answers and provide a stronger response.

In this section we provide three problem solving scenarios of common questions and suitable responses:

Problem Solving Skills & Examples (2023 Guide)

Problem Solving Question 1

You have been asked to schedule in a rush project but you cannot complete the piece of work you need to, since you require information from another colleague who is not currently available. How would you deal with the situation?

Problem Solving Question 2

You are working on a project and halfway through you realise that you have made a significant mistake that may require you to restart the project to resolve it. How would you approach this so you still met the deadline?

Problem Solving Question 3

How would you deal with a customer who wasn't happy with your service, even though you haven't done anything wrong and it is the customer who has made the mistake?

Problem Solving Skills - Tips, Common Mistakes and Further Practice

When it comes to answering questions about problem-solving skills, we recommend the following;

Select a strong example that truly demonstrates your problem-solving ability in a positive manner.

Choose examples that are relevant to the job you are applying for . If you are applying for a project-based position, give an example of how you resolved a problem with a work or academic project.

Be specific with your responses and use an example with enough detail to show how you approach situations and the way you think. Take the time to come up with possible answers and scenarios before the interview .

Make sure the problem is unique . If you have a problem, simply calling someone else to solve it is not impressive. The best answers will show tailored solutions to tasks that may seem mundane.

Make sure the problem is simple . If you have switched from a legal career to an engineering career and your problem is legal in nature, ensure your problem is easy to understand and explain it to your interviewer without using jargon.

Choose a weak or boring problem , or one that reflects you in a negative way.

Generalise your answers with responses such as ‘you consider yourself to be a great problem solver’ or ‘you regularly solve problems’. You need to demonstrate how you solve problems effectively.

Raise any areas of concern by giving examples of negative situations that were a result of your own actions , even if you solved a problem successfully.

No matter how interesting the story that you have to tell is, don’t spend too much time providing too much detail , because the recruiter will soon get bored. Keep your answer short and to the point.

During your written application and at interview, employers will expect you to evidence your problem-solving skills. In your written application you should demonstrate them via relevant keywords, statements and achievements. If you solved a problem and it had a positive impact on the business – such as improved customer service standards or resource savings – say so on your CV.

If you are invited to an interview try to use the STAR technique to structure your answers. This technique focuses your responses on a Situation, Task, Action and Result. Following this process will help your answers to be focused, concise and strong.

Where problem-solving is a main element of your role, an employer may incorporate a relevant psychometric test and/or an activity to carefully assess your problem-solving skills.

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