problem solving

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving in the workplace refers to a person’s ability to handle difficult or unexpected situations and find solutions to complex business challenges. Employees with exceptional problem solving ability will carefully analyse the problem, identify a range of potential solutions, and correctly identify the most effective of the available solutions to remedy the situation. This ensures that employees in complex work who are relied upon to find effective solutions to key business issues are maximally equipped to deal with modern problems that face 21st century businesses.

Those with good problem solving ability will move the business forward more effectively.

Those lacking problem solving ability will inevitably recommend ineffective solutions to key business issues, solutions which will either fail to resolve the underlying issue or indeed exasperate it. For example, they may misinterpret the information presented to them, fail to identify effective solutions to problems, or provide solutions which are unsuitable or indeed counterproductive. Employees with poor problem solving ability cannot be relied upon when the unexpected happens, shifting the burden on other staff. As a result, problem solving ability is a common core competency when hiring professional, managerial, or technical roles, and highly prized by HR professionals and hiring managers.

Why Problem Solving Matters

Problem solving ability is essential to performance in any role where issues need to be dealt with quickly, or where the issues that employees face are particularly complex. For example, management consultants are expected to solve particularly complex issues that their clients may be facing, and within very specific time-frames. Should a consultant fail to provide a solution within the specified timeframe, this will inevitably look bad in the eyes of the client, sullying the relationship and potentially negatively impacting the consultancy’s reputation. However, a consultant with exceptional problem solving ability will most likely provide effective solutions to the client’s problems and provide them within the requisite time period.

As a competency, problem solving is a common performance criterion for roles that require staff to solve urgent or complex problems. These include, but are not limited to: management consultants, IT professionals, finance professionals, legal professionals, data scientists, managers, and executives. As a general rule, the more the role involves employees providing solutions to complex or urgent problems, the more important problem solving ability will be, and the more damage employees could potential cause if they lack those essential problem solving abilities in the workplace.

How to Assess Candidates on their Problem Solving

Problem solving as a psychological construct is underpinned predominantly by specific cognitive abilities. The ability to solve quantitative problems for example, is underpinned by a person’s level of numerical reasoning, and their ability to solve qualitative problems is underpinned by their verbal reasoning. Indeed, the academic research in this field suggests that the predictive validity of ability tests is largely attributable to problem solving abilities. Aptitude test questions are essentially just cognitive problems, and a candidate’s ability to solve them serves as a very useful proxy for their overall problem solving ability.

Other assessments may also measure problem solving to some degree, particularly certain assessment centre exercises, such as case study exercises. Here, candidates will be presented with a particular workplace relevant problem and told to generate solutions to that problem. Although this can be an effective method of assessing problem solving ability, assessment centre exercises are quite resource intensive, and are thus only suitable for the later stages of the recruitment process. Ability tests, however, can be used early in the recruitment process, ensuring that all subsequent candidate hold the requisite level of problem solving ability.

Our recommended Test Partnership assessments for measuring problem solving Assessment(s):

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