What are problem solving skills?
Problem solving skills are the collective strengths that allow an individual to approach and resolve a challenging situation through a logical process. This process is multistage. It involves identifying a problem and its cause, exploring and evaluating potential solutions, choosing the best course of action and then assessing the outcome.
Effective problem solving requires the wide range of skills that facilitate this process, and the personal traits and behaviors that complement them. These include:
- Logical thought and analysis
- Active listening
- Verbal, non-verbal and visual communication
- Interpersonal skills
- Decision making
- Critical evaluation
A transferable skill set, problem solving is required to some extent in almost every job in every industry and should be seen as an essential part of the ideal candidate profile, whatever role you’re recruiting for.
How do great problem solving skills make an employee more effective?
Employees with great problem solving skills often thrive in the workplace because they have what it takes to deal with whatever their job throws at them. That could be at an individual level, like a problem with their own productivity or an issue with a colleague, or it could be a large-scale challenge faced by a business as a whole.
Here’s a look at some of the key things great problem solvers do that make them more effective in the workplace:
1. They approach projects strategically
When an employee is given a project to complete they have two options. They can dive straight in and figure it out as they go, or they can consider the time and resources needed for each associated task, and its priority order.
Good problem solvers do the latter, addressing challenges before they even occur. This strategic approach makes them more productive and their projects more successful.
2. They react quickly
As well as looking at potential risks, great problem solvers are quick to react when unexpected problems arise. Rather than allowing the issue to spiral, they acknowledge it, evaluate it and adapt their plans accordingly.
For their employer, this has many benefits. It can save time and money, bring a competitive edge, and even prevent the rise of a damaging toxic work environment.
3. They learn from mistakes
Effective problem solvers look at a situation with a critical eye. They don't just search to find the best resolution but also to understand what caused a problem in the first place.
All of this gives them the insight they need to prevent those same failings from happening again in the future.
4. They work well under pressure
Employees with great problem solving skills typically excel in pressurized environments. In a time-pressured situation, like an impending deadline for example, they’re quick to think on their feet and use their experience to overcome any hurdles.
Where the problems and pressures involved are results based, like improving business sales say, they’ll carefully weigh up the pros and cons of each potential solution to ensure the best possible outcome.
5. They explore new ideas
Effective problem solvers never take the first course of action they think of, nor do they stick with the status quo. They explore multiple avenues logically, assessing strengths and weaknesses as they go.
This is how some of the best new ideas come about, and because great problem solvers also have the skills to implement these ideas, it leads to greater innovation.
What jobs benefit the most from great problem solving skills?
There are few jobs that do not require problem solving skills to some degree. Even entry level employees that spend their days following detailed instructions will come up against challenges from time to time, so all employers should consider this skill set when recruiting.
There are however certain industries, and indeed certain roles for which problem solving ability is key to success. The tech and creative industries are two examples here, with problem solving skills a must-have for:
- Software developers
- UX designers
- Data engineers
- Mobile app developers
- Digital marketers
- Social media managers
Other professions that rely heavily on an individual’s problem solving ability include those where challenging circumstances are part of the general day-to-day, such as:
How to hire for great problem solving skills
Like all soft skills, those involved in problem solving can be difficult to measure. You can’t judge a candidate’s problem solving ability by what they state on their resume, and though interviews can be somewhat more insightful, they are not conclusive.
In fact, you don't truly know the extent of an applicant's problem solving skills until you see them in action.
With that in mind, the best way to hire for great problem solving skills is to use a variety of screening methods that allow for practical evaluation and first-hand insight.
Use a problem solving skills test
One of the most effective ways to evaluate this important skill set is to use a scientifically designed problem solving skills test. These assessments replicate commonly encountered problems through a series of hypothetical work-based scenarios, challenging the test taker on a practical level.
For each scenario, the candidate must choose what they see as the best course of action in response to the situation. To draw this conclusion, they must apply core problem solving skills like logical reasoning, communication, decision making, prioritization, initiative and critical analysis.
On completion of the test, a detailed score report will be issued for each applicant. Having set a benchmark score as a minimum requirement, you can quickly eliminate those that don’t have the strengths you deem essential.
For those that do meet the required standard, you have a solid base from which to explore their problem solving skills further.
Make relevant reference checks
A problem solving skills test is a good measure of a candidate’s ability but it should not be used in isolation. Ideally, you should look to verify their test scores, and reference checks are a great way to do this.
To make the most of a reference check it’s important to speak to someone that knows the candidate well and can comment directly on their problem solving abilities. It’s also important to ask the right questions.
Examples of questions you may ask in relation to problem solving include:
How would you describe the employee’s approach when tasked with a new project?
Can you give an example of when the employee showed initiative?
Do you have an example of a challenging situation the employee overcame? How did they go about this?
Ask behaviorally focused interview questions
With psychometric testing and reference checks complete, you now have the opportunity to get a candidate’s own perspective on their problem solving skills. One of the best ways to do this is to ask structured, behaviorally focused interview questions.
This type of questioning should see the interviewee apply the STAR technique, describing to you a situation, task, action and result.
For problem solving skills the key things to look out for in their answer are how well they understood the cause of the problem, the potential solutions they considered and why they settled on their final course of action. They should also be able to highlight lessons learned from the experience.
Here’s an example of a structured interview question focused on problem solving skills:
“Can you give me an example of an instance where you had to take immediate action to solve an urgent problem at work?”
How testing for problem solving skills can benefit your company's hiring process
A problem solving skills test is a valuable addition to the recruitment process. It is a time and cost-efficient way to screen candidates at scale and allows you to shortlist those with the greatest potential. As these tests offer objective evaluation, they also help to minimize the risk of interviewer biases.
Most importantly, they help you build well-rounded and insightful candidate profiles. When combined with relevant reference checks and structured interviews, problem solving skills tests give you a comprehensive view of ability, so you can make a well-informed and successful hiring decision.