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How to Improve Your Problem-Solving Skills

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The greatness of Apple’s Steve Jobs – in the words of his colleagues – lay in the fact that he was the greatest problem solver of his time. Therefore, it is no surprise that many companies today are hunting for problem solvers. After discussing with my students several approaches to learning problem-solving skills, I decided to choose one of the most widely used and effective five-step formulas from project management, which is called IDEAL: Identify, Define, Examine, Act and Look.

Here is how you can make the most of your time at university to improve your problem-solving skills…

1. IDENTIFY the problem

In a nutshell, my definition of problem-solving skills is very simple: it is the ability to identify the nature of a problem, deconstruct it (break it down) and develop an effective set of actions to address the challenges related to it.

Indeed, in some challenging situations many students are overwhelmed with emotions and see just big obstacles, barriers or trouble. However, great problem solvers try usually to identify the very roots of the problematic situation – the nature of a particular problem which can be clearly distinguished, addressed and ultimately solved. It is not enough to say that the situation is bad or out of control, as this is very abstract and unhelpful. It is more important to clarify where those problems and challenges come from. Albert Einstein once said: “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.” 

In my experience, the very first step in developing the valuable skills of problem solving is to learn how to look at every situation as an identifiable problem. For example, recently my students in the MDP/Global Classroom program at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) were preparing their applications for a semester abroad program to study sustainable urban development. A host university – Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) – asked them to identify a problem in their home city and prepare a research proposal on sustainable urban development in order to find a solution for the problem. Of course, at the first brainstorming session the students were only talking about what’s not good and what doesn’t work. But that was too general for a problem-solving proposal. My suggestion was to try to identify the nature of the problem by summarizing a specific situation systematically and in one paragraph.

2. DEFINE the main elements of the problem   

The next step in problem solving – and in learning problem-solving skills – is an ability to break down the problem into small pieces, or smaller and more manageable parts by defining the main elements of the problem.

It is an essential step and a skill to develop both psychologically and managerially. Instead of facing a giant, scary, impossible-to-climb monster-mountain, you have to learn how to define smaller roads among the hills and rocks. When you break down a big problem into smaller elements, then you are no longer facing an impossible task, and can go about making several very concrete steps to achieve the goal and solve your problem. 

For example, my students in the MDP program at Al-Farabi KazNU met experts and policy practitioners and identified several problems. However, those problems were so complex and so big that they scared the students, who were not sure they could come up with a solution within one semester. We had to conduct several additional rounds of exercises to define the main elements of each problem and prepare a table where a large problem was broken down into several elements.

3. EXAMINE possible solutions  

Finding possible solutions is a very tricky step in the problem-solving process, as on the surface it looks like most of the work is already done and the ultimate goal is close. In reality, students should not just look for simplistic ways to address the elements of the problem. They should find the most effective ways and turn them into an opportunity to make a strong success story. Steve Jobs often liked to suggest that when his team was confronted with a problem they had to search for “an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.”

Here students also have to remember that there are risks and factors that are not easy to foresee (but possible to try to predict). In order to become more effective, students need to master creative approaches to searching for solutions, with the aid of techniques such as a problem-solving tree. For every branch (a problem element), students have to develop several leaves (possible solutions). An important part of this step of the problem-solving process is to create logical links between different potential solutions, thus reinforcing solutions and creating synergies.

4. ACT on resolving the problem

Developing a step-by-step execution plan and acting effectively and decisively is the final touch in the problem-solving process. This is also an important skill as it doesn’t matter how effectively students identify the problem, define its elements and examine possible solutions; everything still boils down to the ability to perform concrete steps to execute the action plan. Within this problem-solving formula students should also master skills such as monitoring and evaluating the entire action implementation process and – if it is a group undertaking – learn how to delegate certain parts of the work to each other or to external stakeholders.

5. LOOK for lessons to learn

At the moment when the problem is solved, I suggest that students sit down with all their problem-solving trees and action plans, either alone or together if it is a group project. This is the moment to look back and see if there is a need to tune up the work that has been completed. Especially valuable is taking the time to evaluate the entire process and formulating the lessons to be learned so the next problem-solving project will be more effective and produce even more elegant solutions. 

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Written by Rafis Abazov
Dr Rafis Abazov is a visiting professor at Al Farabi Kazakh National University, Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he also manages a joint program with Earth Institute of Columbia University (New York, USA). He has written 10 books, including The Culture and Customs of the Central Asian Republics (2007) and has regularly contributed op-eds to The New York Times. Mr Abazov enjoys collecting rare books on British exploration of Central Asia and reading travelogues on Central Asia and the Middle East by Eugene Schuyler, Vladimir Bartold and Lord George Curzon. He has also authored photo exhibitions about his trips to Central Asian republics, Turkey and Afghanistan. Contact info: Office 1400 Rectorat, 71 Al Farabi Ave., Al Farabi KazNU, Almaty, 050040, Kazakhstan

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