Teaching Problem Solving

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

Problem-solving: Mastering established best practicesproven repeatable solutions for dealing with regular recurring problemsso as to avoid reinventing the wheel. Using repeatable solutions to improvise when addressing problems that are new but similar.

Manager: “When unexpected problems arise, they don’t know how to respond. They can’t just find the answer on their cell phone. Half the time they just freeze up. I guess that’s better than doing something really stupid, which is what happens the other half.”

Gen Zer: “If it is an unexpected problem, then I’m going to try to find a manager to tell me what to do. If I can’t find someone, then I need to make a judgment call. What else am I supposed to do? I can’t help it if he doesn’t agree with my judgment call.”

The Bridge: What You, the Manager, Need to Remember

It may well be true that today’s information environment, in which there are so many answers to so many questions available at the tip of their fingers, many young people today are simply not in the habit of thinking on their feet. Without a lot of experience puzzling through problems, it should be no surprise that Gen Zers are often puzzled when they encounter unanticipated problems.

Here’s the thing: Nine out of 10 times, you don’t want your youngest, least-experienced employees on the front lines to make important decisions on the basis of their own judgment anyway, especially not if they could instead rely on the accumulated experience of the organization.

The reality is that most of the problems new young employees are likely to encounter in the workplace should not require them to make judgment calls. Most of the problems they encounter are probably regularly recurring problems—even though the young employee in question may have no experience with the particular problem at hand. Nonetheless, the problem has occurred before and been solved before, probably many times over. Very few of the problems they encounter should be difficult to anticipate.

Think about it: How many problems do your new young employees encounter that haven’t already been solved before?

The key to teaching anybody the basics of problem solving is to, first, teach them to anticipate the most common recurring problems and prepare them with ready-made solutions: First, they will become familiar with commonly recurring problems, and therefore, be more likely to try to help prevent those problems and also be less often surprised when those problems do arise. Second, they will build up a repertoire of ready-made solutions so there will be a bunch of problems they can solve without having to chase anybody down—they will have the solution right there in their back pocket. Third, from learning and implementing ready-made solutions, they will learn a lot about the anatomy of a good solution. This will put them in a much better position to borrow from ready-made solutions and improvise a better solution when they do encounter the rare unanticipated problem.

Ready-made solutions are just best practices that have been captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job aids. The most common job-aid is a simple checklist:

If A happens, you do B.

If C happens, you do D.

If E happens, you do F.

What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to help your new young employees master best practices for dealing with recurring problems, so they don’t have to “problem solve” anew each time? If you already have such job aids at your disposal, then how can you make better use of them as learning tools? You need to get everybody using those tools. Use them to help your young employees (and probably those of all ages) to anticipate and prepare for the most common problems, to build up their repertoires of ready-made solutions, and to learn the anatomy of a good solution so they are in a better position to improvise when there is truly a call for a judgment call.

Make Them Aware/Make Them Care

This is the message I recommend managers deliver when they are trying to convince their young employees to really care about developing good problem-solving skills:

Your script: “Here’s why you should care of about getting really good at problem solving: Problems are bad. They cost time, energy, and money, and they often leave people—including you—with negative feelings. Even small problems are bad because they often hide and fester and grow and later turn into bigger problems.

The good news is that most of the problems you will encounter at work are not new problems, no matter how unfamiliar they may be to you. Most of the problems you will encounter are problems that have occurred and been solved many times before. That means we already have the ready-made solutions. All you have to do is learn them.

Ready-made solutions are simply best practices that have been captured and turned into standard operating procedures so employees are better prepared to address regularly recurring problems. These tools are common in workplaces where problems can be dangerous, and so there is very little tolerance for error: battlefields, hospitals, airplane cockpits, nuclear weapons launch sites, and so on.

By learning and practicing ready-made, step-by-step solutions, one after another, you will develop a growing list of problems for which you are well prepared with a growing repertoire of solutions. Solving problems with proven best practices is the best way to gain experience in solving problems successfully. Not only that, but by preparing in advance for regularly recurring problems, you also will be in a much better position to anticipate when those problems might occur and possibly prevent or avoid the problem altogether.

Here’s the really good news: You will get better not only at solving the specific problems anticipated, but you will get much better at solving unanticipated problems. Why is that? By learning to implement specific step-by-step solutions to recurring problems, you will learn a lot about what good problem solving looks like—like so many case studies. You will begin to understand and appreciate the common denominators and underlying principles. Over time, you will learn how to draw on those common denominators and underlying principles when facing unanticipated problems. You might draw on elements of ready-made solutions, even mixing and matching, to come up with solutions to unanticipated problem should the need arise to improvise.”

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-Soft-Skills-Gap-Missing/dp/1118725646

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com.

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