Recently I had a conversation with somebody in my hallway about problem solving skills. I was expressing my frustration about this recent article (among others) that lists problem solving as a skill that is in short supply. I didn’t get it. Then my colleague pointed out the rapid changes and the constant pain of having to learn things. Most of these articles are around the rapid technological developments our society has endured so it made sense from that point of view. What I can’t understand is why is this skill in short supply? Further to the point, what can we do about it?

Many of these articles talk about the need for ‘soft skills’ like problem solving but don’t really tell us what to do about it. For instance, how do we equip our people with an understanding of problem solving?

I think the biggest problem is for people is that they don’t understand how to actually tackle difficult problems. Simple problems usually have ready made solutions. Difficult problems require perspective. If the air-conditioning stops you know that you need it repaired. If sales stop, people start leaving, a competitor moves in or your industry starts to fail what do you do? These latter examples demonstrate the kind of problems that fit the ‘skills shortage’ because we have trained people to solve simple problems with ready made solutions instead of giving them the necessary skills to create novel solutions. To me, this presents two major concerns.

  1. We need to make an effort to help people to understand perspectives. The late Russell Ackoff said it this way – it’s not about problem solving but understanding the ‘thinking’ that created the problem in the first place. In other words, don’t look at what’s happening but remember people make problems. What thinking is behind the current situation? Empathy, understanding and listening are the foundational parts of that. Tell me, how often do you see something and immediately judge what the ‘problem’ is before you have investigated it.
  2. We need to give people the room to be creative even if it means failure. How many organisations are happy when something goes wrong on the way to it being ‘right’. Creative problem solving is literally the definition of failing forward. New ideas rarely work out. Yet, most creative problem solving efforts that have worked do so because there is a string of failures behind them leading up to success. Giving space for ‘feedback’ when it’s probably not going to work is essential. That’s where the ‘solution’ ultimately comes from.

I think we need these skills because we are entering into an era where automation is taking over. As the article above suggests there is going to be a need for different ways of solving problems because a great majority of them will be situations we haven’t found ourselves in. To do this, we need perspective, empathy, understanding and the willingness to let people fail their way to success. If we don’t the shortage will continue.


Dr Luke Houghton, Department of Business Strategy and Innovation.