multiethnic businesspeople assembling puzzle together in conference hall
ATD Blog

Puzzle, Problem, Challenge, or Conundrum?

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

There’s a role almost every employee shares, regardless of their industry, title, or level in the organization: working on issues that fall under the general umbrella of solving a “problem.”

In the world of talent development and learning, a common way to describe the goal of a learning solution is solving a business challenge. There are many levels and types of such problems, including puzzles, simple problems, complex problems, challenges, tame problems, wicked problems, and conundrums.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider two common types of problems—puzzles and complex challenges. A puzzle is when the pieces just need to be located and connected. It is fairly straightforward; the puzzle solver just needs to learn about the missing pieces. A complex challenge has no known solution, so the situation requires creativity, innovative ideas, and thinking differently. The problem might exist in other situations, but because of the different contexts, just taking a solution from one place and implementing it in another won’t work. There may also be multiple options for a workable solution.

Whether the problem is a simple puzzle or a complex business challenge, a primary task for talent leaders is helping business partners solve problems. And these challenges are accelerating as the world of work changes. Therefore, a skill needed by all talent leaders today and in the future is the ability to solve problems, both simple and complex.

What does someone study or need to learn to become a champion problem solver, especially for situations in which they have limited experience?

The ability to accomplish a major task or complete a project is generally called a capability, and a capability requires a variety of skills. Even skills can have myriad subskill areas. What knowledge, skills, and behaviors would someone who excelled at solving problems exhibit? What tools would they use?

Recently a group of 10 senior talent development leaders, including some Forum members, were asked to provide the skills needed to be a champion problem solver. Several respondents used trend reports or generative artificial intelligence (AI), while others used their personal experiences and knowledge of the topic. The compiled list submitted by the group provided many “subskills” needed to be a capable problem solver, including the following abilities:

  • Having an overview of problem-solving frameworks such as Plan.Do.Study.Act.
  • Using analytical thinking (analyzing claims and critiquing arguments)
  • Possessing critical thinking (discerning sources of information)
  • Understanding systems and using that thinking
  • Using future thinking (“seeing around the corner”)
  • Implementing human-centered design thinking
  • Thinking deductively (deducing lessons from experiences)
  • Employing creativity
  • Using associational thinking methods
  • Reasoning
  • Evaluating data and situations using a variety of tools
  • Using predictability tools and methods
  • Having a growth mindset and being open to innovative practices
  • Recognizing patterns, seeing themes, gleaning insights, and making inferences from data
  • Using collaborative and decision-making tools and techniques

If your goal for 2024 is to enhance your capability as a problem solver, given this list of skills, where would you start? A logical first step would be understanding the various frameworks used for solving problems. These include Root Cause Analysis, CIRCLES method, Phoenix, design thinking, systems thinking, Agile methodology, and the quality adaptation of the Shewhart’s Cycle, or Plan.Do.Study.Act (PDSA). Frameworks provide structured approaches to identify the causes of a problem and find effective solutions, incorporating tools and techniques such as data analyses, heuristics, and logical reasoning. Using the discipline of various steps and procedures also keeps a team from rushing to a quick solution that isn’t right for the problem.

The creator of the CIRCLES method is Lewis C. Lin, author of the book Decode and Conquer. According to Lin, the starting place is clarifying the goal, identifying the constraints, and understanding the context of the situation. The seven steps of the CIRCLES method are:

  • Comprehend the situation: Understand the context of the problem you’re solving.
  • Identify the customer: Know who you’re building the product for.
  • Report customer’s needs: Rely on the customer research to uncover pain points.
  • Cut, through prioritization: Omit unnecessary ideas, tasks, and solutions.
  • List solutions: Keep the focus on the most feasible solutions.
  • Evaluate tradeoffs: Consider the impact, cost of delay, and other factors.
  • Summarize your recommendation: Make a decision and explain your reasoning.

In his book Thinkertoys, Michael Michalko, a former CIA creative consultant, describes Phoenix as a checklist for questions the CIA uses to train agents to look at a problem from a variety of perspectives or angles. He recommends starting with the provided list and continually adding your own questions as you iteratively ask questions to dissect the challenge in as many ways as possible. Some of the questions include:

  • Why is it necessary to solve this particular problem?
  • What benefits will you receive by solving it?
  • What is the information you have?
  • Is the information sufficient?
  • What is the unknown?
  • What isn’t a problem?
  • Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?
  • Where are the boundaries of the problem?
  • What are the constants of the problem?
  • Have you seen this problem before?
  • If you find a similar problem that has already been solved, can you use its method?
  • Can you restate the problem? How many different ways can you restate it?
  • What are the best, worst, and most probable solutions you can imagine?

While these various frameworks differ, generally, they all include the following steps:

  • Defining the problem
  • Exploring the causes
  • Generating options for solutions
  • Evaluating the various solution options based on feasibility, effectiveness, and suitability
  • Implementing the selected solution using a pilot
  • Reviewing the result and assessing the outcome against the goal

Each of these steps includes a variety of questions and tools to assist. Additionally, it is important to document the actions taken for each step and have an audit trail for the final decisions.

One way to decide which framework to use is simply to use the one most prevalent in your organization. In the 2007 Harvard Business Review article “Preparing for the Perfect Product Launch,” Jim Hackett, former CEO of Steelcase and Ford, talks extensively about the need for problem solving to include the right amount of thinking before implementation. But more importantly, he shares the story of creating an approach for his entire organization to use, thus building internal capabilities and creating a common language to move the organization forward with effective problem solving.

A capability is never one skill in isolation, but multiple subskills grouped together. Additionally, skills such as conducting research, organizing time and resources, communicating, asking questions, and documenting results along the way are common across many capabilities. However, to become a capable person in any skill area, you have to start somewhere. Learning and using a framework is an excellent first step for problem solving, especially since you can learn as you solve a real challenge.

In summary, problem-solving skills are vital in the workplace. These skills enable employees to resolve challenges more effectively because they help increase efficiencies, which can save time, money, and resources. They enable data-informed decisions, foster innovative practices, enhance collaboration, and help make employees adaptable when new situations arise.

What will you do in 2024 to increase your problem-solving capability?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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