Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Analytical & Problem Solving Skills

Development Suggestions

1. Defining the problem. Instant and early conclusions, solutions, statements, suggestions, how we solved it in the past, are the enemies of good problem solving. Studies show that defining the problem and taking action occur almost simultaneously for most people, so the more effort you put on the front end, the easier it is to come up with a good solution. Stop and first define what the problem is and isn’t. Since providing solutions is so easy for everyone, it would be nice if they were offering solutions to the right problem. Figure out what causes it. Keep asking why, see how many causes you can come up with and how many organizing buckets you can put them in. This increases the chance of a better solution because you can see more connections. Be a chess master. Chess masters recognize thousands of patterns of chess pieces. Look for patterns in data; don’t just collect information. Put it in categories that make sense to you. Ask lots of questions. Allot at least 50% of the time to defining the problem.

2. Results oriented impatience. The style that chills sound problem solving the most is the results driven, time short and impatient person. He/she does not take the time to define problems and tends to take the first close enough solution that comes along. Studies have shown that on average, the solution somewhere between the second and third one generated is the best. Impatient people don’t wait that long. Slow down. Discipline yourself to pause for enough time to define the problem better and always think of three solutions before you pick one.

3. Watch your biases. Some people have solutions in search of problems. They have favorite solutions. They have biases. They have universal solutions to most situations. They pre-judge what the problem is without stopping to consider the nuances of this specific problem. Do honest and open analysis first. Did you state as facts things that are really assumptions or opinions? Are you sure these assertions are facts? Did you generalize from a single example? One of your solutions may in fact fit, but wait to see if you’re right about the problem. More help? – Read Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono.

4. Get out of your comfort zone. Many busy people rely too much on solutions from their own history. They rely on what has happened to them in the past. They see sameness in problems that isn’t there. Beware of “I have always...” or “Usually I....” Always pause and look under rocks and ask yourself, is this really like the problems I have solved in the past?   

5. Asking others for input. Many try to do too much themselves. They don’t delegate, listen or ask others for input. Even if you think you have the solution, ask some others for input just to make sure. Access your network. Find someone who makes a good sounding board and talk to her/him, not just for ideas, but to increase your understanding of the problem. Or do it more formally. Set up a competition between two teams, both acting as your advisors. Call a problem-solving meeting and give the group two hours to come up with something that will at least be tried. Find a buddy group in another function or organization that faces the same or a similar problem and both of you experiment.

6. Perfectionist? Need or prefer or want to be 100% sure? Want to wait for all of the information to come in. Lots might prefer that. Beware of analysis paralysis. A good rule of thumb is to analyze patterns and causes to come up with alternatives. Many of us just collect data, which numerous studies show increases our confidence but doesn’t increase decision accuracy. Perfectionism is tough to let go of because most people see it as a positive trait for them. Recognize your perfectionism for what it might be – collecting more information than others do to improve your confidence in making a fault-free decision and thereby avoiding risk and criticism. Try to decrease your need for data and your need to be right all the time slightly every week until you reach a more reasonable balance between thinking it through and taking action.

7. Incrementalism. Sometimes the key to bigger problem-solving is to make them into a series of smaller problems. People who are good at this are incrementalists. They make a series of smaller decisions, get instant feedback, correct the course, get a little more data, move forward a little more, until the bigger problem is under control. They don’t try to get it right the first time. Learn to break down problems into pieces and parts and solve them one at a time.

8. Learn some more problem-solving skills. There are many different ways to think through and solve a problem.

  • Ask more questions. In one study of problem solving, seven percent of comments were questions and about half were answers. We jump to solutions based on what has worked in the past.
  • To get fresh ideas, don’t speedboat, look deeply instead. Tackle the most vexing problem of your job – carve out 20% of your time – study it deeply, talk with others, look for parallels in other organizations and in remote areas totally outside your field.
  • Complex problems are hard to visualize. They tend to be either oversimplified or too complex to solve unless they are put in a visual format. Cut the problem up into its component pieces. Examine the pieces to see if a different order would help, or how you could combine three pieces into one.
  • Another technique is a pictorial chart called a storyboard where a problem is illustrated by its components being depicted as pictures.
  • A variation of this is to tell stories that illustrate the +’s and -’s of a problem, then flow chart those according to what’s working and not working. Another is a fishbone diagram used in Total Quality Management.
  • Sometimes going to extremes helps. Adding every condition, every worse case you can think of sometimes will suggest a different solution. Taking the present state of affairs and projecting into the future may indicate how and where the system will break down.
  • Are you or others avoiding making the tough points? In almost any group, there are topics so hot they can’t be mentioned, let alone discussed. A technique, pioneered by Chris Argyris, can bubble them to the surface. Everyone takes three index cards and writes down three undiscussables. (Names are not used; the assumption is that the position has an effect on behavior, and even if people think the issue is personal, they are asked to see it in system or group terms.) The cards are then shuffled and each person receives a different three back. The cards are read, charted, and themes are arrayed for discussion. For more techniques, read The Art of Problem Solving by Russell Ackoff and Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono.

9. Avoiding risks? Develop a philosophical stance toward mistakes and failures in problem solving. After all, most innovations fail, most proposals fail, most change efforts fail, and the initial solutions to complex problems do not work. The best tack when a solution doesn’t work is to say, “What can we learn from this?” and move on. The more tries, the more feedback and the more chances to find the best answer.

10. Disorganized? Problem solving involves using rigorous logic and disciplined methods. It involves going through checklists, looking under rocks, and probing all fruitful sources for answers. If you’re disorganized, you need to set tight priorities. Focus on the mission-critical few. Don’t get diverted by trivia.

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