Problem-solving is an essential skill as an innovator. If problems stump your employees, how can your organization ever innovate for customers? Luckily, problem-solving skills can be learned, and as a leader you can create a team of master problem solvers and innovators.

Most employees already apply some problem-solving skills every day. They just do so to varying degrees of success based on their experiences and their environment. Some employees are good at identifying problems, some at problem strategizing or resolution and some at delivering solutions. Yet you can’t just tell them to go and solve all of the organization’s problems based on their current problem-solving abilities. Problem-solving skills require a structured approach so that they can be mastered. Your employees need to be able to ask questions, check their biases and use a variety of tools to track and ideate potential solutions. All employees can and should learn how to effectively practice these three techniques for problem solving.

1: Problem Identification

Steve Jobs once said, “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”

This is a critical first step. As a leader, you must teach your employees to look carefully at the problem and ask, “What is the real problem?” Most of the time, leaders and employees make the mistake of chasing after the symptoms instead of the real issue. Take time during problem identification to be specific and detailed in finding the root of the problem by asking many different questions.

Ask who the problem affects and how, how it manifests, why it is happening and use validation methods like the 5-Whys Method and Root-Cause Analysis. With these tools, you can ask why a problem happens until you run out of questions. There are so many potential causes for a problem, just as there are many branches in a root, and you can explore each branch to find the root cause or causes and ensure you aren’t attempting to solve a symptom.

Reframing the problem can also bring new light. Your employees can ask, “It sounds like you are thinking the problem is this—is there a different way of thinking about that? Are there any positive exceptions to the problem?” Perhaps the problem was an opportunity all along, and simply needed rephrasing.

This simple mindset switch can help you more quickly and effectively see the true obstacles. Rather than focusing on why something is a problem for you, think of why it is a problem for your customers—or if it is, in fact, an issue for them. It is important to remember that your customers’ problems should be your problems, and the more you make their problems your own, the better you will serve them. Having conversations about these different issues ensures your team is focused on the right ones.

2. Problem Environment and Methods

Leaders have to create the right environment to promote action. If your employees don’t feel safe to discuss organization and customer problems, solutions will remain far out of reach. But in fostering high psychological safety within your team, you promote ownership in solution development. Combine this with high cognitive diversity—learning, experimenting and confidence—and you’ve created an environment of skill development that results in master problem solvers.

When you hear of a new problem, what do you do first—react or listen? As a leader, it is easy to jump straight to resolutions, but this can lead to solving the wrong problems. Instead, engage your critical thinking and objectivity to truly understand the problem. Creating effective solutions takes discipline, both in understanding the issue and in construction and delivery of the solution. The tendency to diagnose symptoms rather than the true problem comes with assumptions—assumptions that kill good and better solutions. When you feel the need to jump to a solution, take a step back to address your biases, ask questions and look for the root cause before racing to a solution.

Using a methodical approach each time encourages this discipline and offers more control of the process, the space to break it down into more digestible issues and the time to think through each and every step. When you break complex problems into smaller conversations, it is easier to get to the root and find a suitable solution.

3. Problem Resolution

Anyone can solve problems—it all comes down to mindset. Successful and routine problem-solving requires setting expectations and creating accountability for the team.

Start by developing an inventory to track problems that need to be solved and for whom. Then gather data from employees. Ask them, “What problems are you solving? What did you experience? How are you troubleshooting?” No matter the size of the problem, tracking solutions creates accountability, fosters employee engagement, helps solve connected problems and measures the value created from solutions.

Along with an inventory, offer opportunities for training and practice with the skills and tools that employees need to master problem-solving. Skills like research, active listening, analysis, decision making, creativity, communication, dependability, emotional intelligence and teaming give the framework to take teams through solution development. You’ll find that these skills and tools also aid in the understanding of latent causes of the problem, contributing to the circle of problem-solving success.

As your team moves through a problem-solving system, you’ll find that problems often require multiple solutions, and many options between those solutions. Giving your team a problem-solving methodology and training teaches them how to pick the most suitable solution depending on timing, customers and other outside factors. It is an ongoing process, and as your team solves more and more complex problems, they will grow as innovators.

Problem-solving as a skill is grown through practice and confidence. To master it, your employees need to master other skills, use their creative and critical thinking to objectively identify problems and develop the right mindset. Master these yourself and grow a team of master problem solvers.

About the Author

Dr. Evans Baiya is an internationally recognized and trusted guide to business leaders and innovators. Using his 6-stage process, he helps the businesses identify, define, develop, verify, commercialize, and scale ideas so the businesses and individuals can learn, grow, and thrive.  He is the co-author of the award-winning book, The Innovator’s Advantage and co-creator of The Innovator’s Advantage Academy, a detailed step-by-step innovation training. Learn more at

Featured image via Pixabay.