man solving problem

Effective problem-solving

In recent years there has been a great deal of discussion about the importance of employability skills alongside technical qualifications and in today’s high-pressure engineering environments, the ability to problem-solve is likely to form the cornerstone of your endeavours.

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” was reportedly one of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s frequently quoted lines. Over the years, it evolved into one of those much derided business clichés and these days its closest equivalent is the rather harsher, more succinct “deal with it”.

Irrespective of how the sentiment is presented though, the meaning behind the words is the same: bosses like their employees to display initiative and tackle problems rather than see them as immovable obstacles. A CBI Education and Skills survey found that one quarter of employers were dissatisfied with graduates’ problem-solving skills.

If problems are left unidentified and fester, their impact magnifies and can cost an organisation time, money and goodwill. As in all walks of life, some individuals will have a greater natural disposition to problem-solving compared with others but the principles of good problem-solving can be acquired. Gaining a reputation for problem-solving means you will be held in high regard as well as sought out by employers.

Investigate the likely causes

Whatever the nature of the problem, the starting point is always to identify and define it and assess its impact. Be sure to base your analysis on fact rather than supposition and gather tangible evidence and data. If necessary break the problem down into different parts or stages. Explore when and where the problem first arose and talk to stakeholders who can provide insight.

Having carried out a thorough analysis of the ‘what and where’, the next step is to isolate the cause. Failure to pinpoint the precise cause can mean that only the symptoms of the problem are treated and these will inevitably re-occur. When trying to identify the cause, you may need to look at an interlinking set of circumstances or events that have led to the problem rather than one thing. 

Be systematic and methodical in your approach and leave no stone unturned. Having established the cause, devise the solution and test it. Measure the results and if this fails to cure the problem, go back and re-test a different or modified solution.

Develop your problem-solving

The analytical thinking, reasoning and logic that you have applied throughout your engineering studies provides a solid foundation on which to further build your problem-solving skills.

Similarly, those who’ve become proficient in project management methodologies such as Six Sigma will find it helpful to apply their particular expertise when dealing with a problem. Creativity and the ability to think laterally are equally important though.

Albert Einstein once said “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” and it is important to view every problem as an opportunity where fresh thinking might lead to an unorthodox solution. The personal attributes of good problem-solvers include resilience, persistence, being action-oriented and displaying bags of initiative. You also need to be a good listener and able to take on board other points of view as this could be central to working out the root cause of the problem as well as possible solutions.

Even if you aren’t aware of it, you will be developing your problem-solving skills throughout your career and life in general but there are some exercises you can also do to help. There are a number of online analytical tests you can do and logic, reasoning and lateral thinking puzzles and games you can play in your idle moments.

Demonstrate your problem-solving acumen

Convincing a potential boss or recruiter of your problem-solving capability can be a challenge at the application and interview stage but try to convey your ingenuity early on.

Use practical examples from your coursework, a project, student competition or work placement of how you dealt with a complex problem and briefly take them through the steps you took. Explain not only how you resolved the problem but what subsequent benefit that it delivered to the team or organisation and even better if you have metrics to prove it like increased productivity or efficiency.

While examples from the real world of work or your studies are good, it could also be a challenge you faced outside of work or academic life such as in a part-time job or maybe an extra-curricular activity. Chances are the interviewer is likely to ask you some “what would you do if...” hypothetical questions. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to second-guess the question in advance but even if a question fazes you try to stay calm and focused and take time to reflect before responding.

Remember that you are effective at problem-solving, that’s probably one of the reasons why you’ve been called for interview and the interviewer will be interested in the method and approach you take as much as the solution you arrive at.

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