Solve problems faster at work with these 4 principles 

Do we burn the house down to get rid of the mouse? 

Does a person’s ability to solve problems directly relate to advancement? Does the capacity to find solutions enable promotion? If so, how many correct solutions does one need to acquire?  

It has been shown that consistent problem solvers progress in their career faster than those who select the wrong option. It’s the secret sauce we can use to improve our credentials.  

Mathematician George Polya put forward a thesis in 1945 that there are four principles in being able to problem solve. Try using these next time you come across a meaty problem at work and see where success takes you. 

1. Understand the problem

Fully understand the problem by analysing the evidence
Analyse the evidence

Know what you’re facing, or you might make the wrong assumptions. 

A dramatic example of this is when the medical profession attributed Yellow Fever epidemics to a contagious, airborne disease passed from person to person, even though they had no evidence. Because of this incorrect frame of reference, they failed to accept other opinions.

It wasn’t until 27th August 1900, when US Army physician James Carroll allowed an infected mosquito to feed on him, that his subsequent illness helped his colleague Walter Reed discover effective ways to combat the true cause of the problem. 

The lesson is clear: 

  • Define the problem 
  • Know your objective 
  • Research  

2. Devise a plan

Once you have gathered and assessed all research, use an analytical approach to gather resources and set time frames. Try to do this in a step-by-step way. 

Again, in the Yellow Fever campaign, the clinical solutions in place before the mosquito discovery were in three steps. 1) Burn down the suspect buildings, 2) Set a bonfire in the middle of the street to ‘purify’ the air, 3) Have the local population flee and leave all their belongings behind. 

To devise a great plan, consider: 

  • Analysing all information and opinion 
  • Generating solutions that recognises risks, causes and effects 
  • Choosing the plan that optimises efficiency, productivity and performance 

3. Carry out the Plan

The co-ordination and management of resources is now in play.  

With the discovery by Carroll and Reed, measures were put in place to eradicate and reduce the effect of the mosquito. It was essential to attack the problem on all fronts. All areas where mosquito breeding could occur were sprayed or sealed in. People were encouraged to use insect repellent, long sleeve clothing and their beds, windows and doors screened or netted.  

There are three steps to keep in mind here: 

  • Implement 
  • Review/evaluate 
  • Adjust 

4. Look Back  

Feedback is essential to improve problem solving skills
Review and get feedback on the process

The final stage is to review what went well? Where could improvements be made?

When considering those first efforts to control Yellow Fever, it should be asked in what capacity were those questions defined? How was the effectiveness of the plan assessed?   

How to improve this skill? 

Testing ourselves with mathematical games is a great way to start. Mind puzzles that get you thinking laterally and analytically are useful exercises. However, remember that for the exercise to work: 

  • it must be hard 
  • it must be something you practise repetitively  
  • and it must challenge you logically and emotionally 

Master the skill of problem solving, particularly under pressure and at speed, and you will have a key skill that will serve you well long into your career. 

If you are interested in learning how to deal with problems efficiently, check out our creative problem solving training London courses.