Can problem solving be taught?

Is it realistic to expect to unearth proven problem solvers? And are businesses looking in the right place? Or are they missing a trick by ignoring the talent already available?

Given the volatile and uncertain times in the global economy, it is not surprising that some skills become more highly prized than others. For example, it has now become the norm for corporates to include “problem solving” in the list of skills required of potential new hires.

But Noel Gray, a creative consultant, believes that scanning the horizon for problem solvers is a fool’s errand. “My concern with companies that spend time looking for ‘proven problem solvers’ is that the attributes that can be demonstrated and assessed will be ideal for solving problems that are not yours. They are ‘fighting the last war,’ if you like, focusing on what has happened rather than what will happen.”

Gray says leadership teams that prioritize problem-solving skills frequently compile a list of attributes that, although useful, can often exclude those with something new to say. “They will have difficulty thinking differently – they are stuck in a rut, used to thinking the same way to arrive at solutions. Of course, those solutions can be important and useful, but some decisions and problems need to be made differently.”

So, how does a business foster a problemsolving culture? Gray believes there are a number of elements, but, in short, there needs to be a supportive culture where mistakes aren’t punished; a belief that thinking differently should be celebrated; and a focus on collaboration.

“Good innovative problem solving has to be collaborative,” he says. “You can do it on your own, but group conversations can spark new thoughts and solutions much quicker than individuals will. It will also, usually, be a much richer experience and, if you’re going to teach someone problemsolving techniques, then they, at least in part, have to be able to run a team of problem solvers.”

The trick, it seems, is for leaders to design and empower teams to break problems down and design solutions. Harvard Business Review recently published a study that showed that the optimum number in such a team is seven. Beyond that, the chances of making a good decision decrease by 10% with each new person added.

There are a number of real world examples of this approach. Victor Allis, the founder of Dutch software provider Quintiq, was an international level mathematics genius and puzzler. He says that while Quintiq hires some of the brightest graduates across the world, designing internal structures to allow them to flourish is just as crucial. “I say to people that work for the company, ‘let’s figure out how we become the number one in solving planning puzzles around the world.’ And I ask ‘what do you need from us to make that happen, what freedom do we need to give you and what are the bigger boundaries that we work within?’”

Gray’s final condition for successful problem solving: fun. “You’ve got to train people that the process of breaking down a problem and designing a solution can be fun. It’s about engaging the childlike side of the brain to come up with truly creative solutions … some of the techniques are deliberately provocative. If you start out with an outlandish idea you can develop that into something totally new.”

The article was written by:

  • Christian Doherty

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