problem solving skills in the workplace and in personal life

Do problems frighten you? Alright, maybe ‘frighten’ is an extreme term. Then again, maybe it isn’t. But do problems make you anxious? Do they make you feel emotionally vulnerable? Make you lose your cool? Do they make you feel like all hell will break loose? That London Bridge is falling down?

Don’t worry. You are not the only person who feels like this.

Problems are an integral part of our everyday lives. So is problem solving. But different people approach problems differently. And there, dear reader, lies the key to your happiness.

Problem solving has a synonym in the corporate world today – fire fighting. Up to 70 percent of employees’ time is spent ‘fire fighting’. They spend more than six hours a day grappling with problems which should not exist. What a waste of time and productivity! Imagine what organizations can achieve if hundreds (or thousands) of employees get these 6 hours daily (or 30 hours weekly) to work on something constructive!

You see, the biggest cause for headache while solving problems is our ‘fireman’ mentality. Firefighters were our childhood heroes (of course, they still are real life heroes). But there is a glaring difference between firemen and us… as glaring as a fire which has burned for two hours.

While solving problems, firemen set up break points, and let some fires burn. Using good judgement, they focus on the real problem, and come up with permanent solutions. We, on the other hand…

Fire fighting is not exclusive to the corporate world. The corporate is, after all, made up of people and their habits. In reality, our firefighting skills – or problem solving skills – are flawed, though we hate to admit it.

The Flawed Approach To Solve Everyday Problems

Our mantra is, “if it isn’t urgent, worry about it later.” We procrastinate until it’s too late. Eventually, the ignored problem becomes so massive that it calls for – you guessed it – fire fighting. “Every problem you neglect on Monday morning will arise and bite you in the back on Friday afternoon,” says Yuval Danieli, director of customer services at Morphisec.

Or, if we encounter a problem, we jump headlong into it without thinking once.This behavior is more fashionable than owning the latest iPhone. Thinking twice… that’s farfetched.

You don’t like that feeling, right? The feeling of anxiety when problems arise. Or the frustration when a problem says “Ta-da” over and over again.

“How many times must I handle this?” you ask yourself. “Why doesn’t it go away?” The questions never have answers. You stare at the wall, trying to muster courage to bang your head against it.

Why don’t problems go away? Why don’t your questions have answers? Why can’t you say goodbye to anxiety, the way you say goodbye to inner peace when you encounter a problem?

The problem is not the problem (sorry, bad pun). It’s our ability to solve problems. Who has the answers?

Albert Einstein Wants to Help You

Enter Albert Einstein, the most celebrated philosopher of the last century, and deservedly so. Contrary to the popular myth, Einstein was remarkably intelligent since childhood. He built powerful mental models to attack and solve his problems – at work and in personal life. His quotes are principles we should live by.

Here are three remarkable quotes by the great scientist which offer answers for all your problems (dammit, bad pun again).

1. “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Problem Solving Albert Einstein Quotes

We don’t want to let a problem linger for long. We want to get rid of it as soon as possible. Hence, we jump into the water without testing its depth. We repeat mistakes of the past, and then put out self berating social media status updates about how we suck because we never learn.

But most fire fighting is due to failure to identify root cause of previous fires. In the pursuit of ‘quick fixes’, we fail to scrape the surface. As a result, the problem reappears in our lives.

Ever wondered why some people solve problems more effectively than most? Why they always seem to possess lucidity when everyone else is losing their minds? Their responses are based on experience. They have seen the same thing, or something similar before, and remember the solution. They form mental models, and use them effectively.

How can we learn to be like them? Once again, here is Albert Einstein.

2. “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes
thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein Life Quotes

The more time we spend understanding a problem, the more effective the resolution. Intelligent people don’t jump into solution mode quickly. Instead, they ask themselves, “which other factors are at play here?” They become comfortable with the uncertainty surrounding problems, and dig deeper.

Techniques like 5 Whys and Fishbone allow us to get to the root cause of a problem, and take corrective action to ensure it never occurs again. But these techniques also help us eliminate challenges we didn’t foresee or address.

Ask Paul O’Neill, who turned an ailing Alcoa into one of corporate America’s heavyweights by addressing just one problem – worker safety.

We must examine what’s in front of us. But we also must uncover latent factors which contribute to the problem. Don’t look for solutions immediately; take time to comprehend the gravity of the issue. Keep redefining the problem until you arrive at the root cause. The solutions you devise will save you a lot of ‘fire fighting’ and frustration. Plus, for what it’s worth, it will open new avenues for you.

3. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking
we used when we created them.”

Solving Problems Einstein quotes

In his bestselling book Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono points out that we spend a lot of time measuring how right or wrong a solution is. But you cannot use the same thinking routine to solve problems – whether personal or in the workplace. You can’t dig a hole at a different location by digging the same one deeper.

Fear and ignorance are the biggest deterrents to developing broader mindsets. Fear that if a solution is not found immediately, credibility is lost. It doesn’t matter if the solution merely sweeps the problem under the carpet. Ignorance reflects in the “that’s how it’s always been” mindset.

These contingents prevent the cycle from breaking. They prevent us from stepping back and assessing a problem. Consequently, we try solving every problem with the same mindset that created it. But if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Summing Up

The ability to solving problems effectively boils down to the efficiency with which you apply your mind to the objective, to how much you use reason and logic. Persistence, focus and imagination are key factors here.

Most problems don’t come from bad people or sources that are easy to identify as malevolent. Rather, they stem from our loathing for uncertainty. Hard thinking and critical analysis don’t offer instant gratification and hence, make us uncomfortable. Hence, we are quick to dismiss the advice mentioned above.

Problems are inevitable. The unpleasant feelings which accompany them… they’re not. Consider all options, regardless of how irrelevant they currently appear. Keep an open mind. Seek comfort in the uncomfortable.

It’s only a matter of time before your problems worry before appearing in front of you, because you punch above your weight. Now wouldn’t that be something!


Vishal Kataria

how to say no

Just Say “No”

by 30 January 2017 Uncategorized