Problem Solving Skill

Finding the right problems to solve

Problem Solving Skill

Finding the right problems to solve

Á problem solving skill is perhaps normally seen as a reactive tool. That’s to say, it’s applied to existing problems, once these have been identified.

However, problem solving can also be done pro-actively. The application of key questions to existing situations, even in the absence of obvious problems, can still yield benefits. Asking why and why not, is perhaps one key to innovation and improvement.

Consider this little known but momentous exchange:

Having snapped the last photograph, Edwin reminded his daughter that she’d have to wait until the the roll of film was developed. The usual processing time was one week and for almost everybody this seemed acceptable. Everybody, that is, except the child.


“Why,” she asked, “do I have to wait a week to see my pictures?” After all, a week can be a long time for a young child. Edwin could have responded like countless parents faced with this most ubiquitous of childhood questions.

“Because that’s just the way it is.” Instead, Edwin Land chose to say “why not?” His daughter’s simple question sparked a challenge that had never occurred to him. “How might I make a camera that creates instantaneous pictures?”

Within about an hour, he had formulated several solutions. Within approximately four years, Edwin Land had commercialized a product. The Polaroid Land camera was the world’s first camera capable of taking photographs which developed within minutes.

“Problem Solving Skill: Finding the Right Problems to Solve”

This is part of our series of management tips based on a comprehensive Seven Step Problem Solving Process. We argue that finding the right problems, and defining problems as opportunities, are two crucial steps missing from many problem solving processes. How do you see problems as opportunities? That’s the subject of our article: The Power of Positive Thinking: 5 questions to transform problem solving. But the first step, and the crucial problem solving skill, is to find the right problems to solve!

So finding the right problems to solve is an invaluable problem solving skill and comes first in our seven step problem solving process. This can be done by firstly asking questions about the current situation. Follow this with questions about the likely future. The result: pro-active problem solving, which may just open the door to creativity and innovation.

Frustration and unrest with the current situation is often a good place to start. Use the first table below to evaluate current issues and to brainstorm any possibilities which could arise from those. The second table contains questions which might help you to identify future possibilities. Remember, the key to this problem solving skill is to ask: why not? Just as this same question is routinely asked by innovative experts such as Toyota:

  • Why not?
  • Two words that are filled with possibilities.
  • They can turn a challenge into an opportunity.
  • An obstacle into an inspiration.
  • It’s a question we ask ourselves at Toyota every day.
  • Because we’re continuously looking for new ways to improve what we do.
  • By asking tough questions.
  • Can we make a car that has zero emissions?
  • Can we improve the economy of a community?
  • Can we enrich the lives of people around us?
  • Why not?
Problem Solving Skill: asking questions about the present

Problem solving skill: current issues

Problem Solving Skill: asking questions about the future

Problem solving skill: questions about the future

These questions are adapted from Min Basadur’s: “The Power of Innovation“. There you’ll also find the Edwin Land story, in an excellent book, full of advice, tips, techniques and a clear process for making innovation work. In particular, Basadur recommended a three stage problem solving process:

  1. Problem Finding Activity
  2. Problem Solving Activity
  3. Problem Implementation Activity
Tips for Implementation

You could either work through the questions on your own or discuss them with your colleagues. If you decide to use this activity with your team, here is a possible process:


  • To identify problems worth solving.


  • Hand-out the “current questions table” and ask colleagues (in groups) to talk through the questions.
  • Capture ideas from the groups, allowing each to feedback the results of their discussions
  • Repeat the process for the “future questions table”.
  • Collate your findings by asking which problems offer the greatest opportunities, and are worth solving.
  • List the potential focus areas, recording any insights, ideas or initial solutions.


Summarise the ideas and possibilities generated. Decide on follow-up actions or meetings, so that everybody leaves knowing what will happen next. Arrange a follow up meeting, a creative session for idea generation. Or maybe ask for volunteers to further investigate ideas you’ve already captured and produce a feasibility report.

Remember, it’s not enough to just ask “why not”. This only becomes a problem solving skill when the next step is action!

What's the Problem?Once you’ve read this article, put our problem solving technique to good use with our great-value e-guide: What’s the Problem?! A comprehensive guide to problem solving, complete with these 9 essential tools:

  • Tool 1: When you don’t know what to do
  • Tool 2: Defining questions for problem solving
  • Tool 3: Finding the right problems to solve
  • Tool 4: Problem solving check-list
  • Tool 4a: Using the question check-list with your team
  • Tool 5: Problem analysis in 4 steps
  • Tool 5a: Using 4 Step problem analysis with your team
  • Tool 6: Questions that create possibilities
  • Tool 6a: Using the 5 questions with your team
  • Tool 6b: Putting creativity to work – 5 alternate questions
  • Tool 6c: Workshop outline
  • Tool 7: Evaluating alternatives
  • Tool 8: Creative thinking techniques A-Z
  • Tool 9: The 5 Whys technique
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I’m teaching team leaders and team members 7 Step Problem Solving and found your site very enlightening and useful for my classes!!!

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I think you’re a genius in problem solving 🙂

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I am designing a new Management Development programme for my company and your Goal Setting guide has really helped.

I like the way you introduced material I haven’t seen before (SHARP action) & the tools to apply the learning. The price represents really good value for money and I will be checking out more of your material over the coming months.

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