• Core Competencies
  • Problem Solving

Functional Description

Employs an analytical and creative approach to address problems, while drawing on individual & collective skills, knowledge & experience.

Content Knowledge Requirements

Understanding and knowledge of foundational theory and practices of problem solving.

Skill Requirements

Understands various problem-solving techniques.

Ethical Requirements

Ability to weigh and implement the problem solving strategies equitably.

Expertise Levels

Entry level.

Identifies the problem and considers potential solutions.

Intermediate Level

Identifies the problem and considers potential solutions. Employs multiple problem-solving strategies. Seeks assistance as necessary.

Expert Level

Employs multiple problem-solving strategies. Identifies possible explanations and alternatives, identifies the information necessary to solve a problem, anticipates obstacles, and develops contingency plans. Undertakes a complex task by breaking it down into manageable parts in a systematic, detailed way. Presents problem analysis and recommended solutions, rather than just identifying or describing the problem itself. Seeks assistance as necessary.

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Competency: Problem Solving

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Problem Solving

  • Strategic Technology Planning
  • Thoroughness
  • Career Framework Program
  • Step 1 – Initiating the Project
  • Step 2 – Aligning Job Descriptions
  • Step 3 – Collaborative Performance Developing Planning
  • Competencies by Job Description
  • Step 4 – Managing Career Development
  • Anticipates, identifies, and defines problems
  • Seeks root causes
  • Develops and implements practical and timely solutions.

What it Doesn’t Look Like

  • Addressing symptoms instead of the problem
  • Driving to solution without properly defining the problem or completing a thorough analysis
  • Using only one tool or approach to solve all problems
  • Looking at the issue from only one perspective
  • Committing to solutions too early

Questions to Consider

  • Have I clearly and accurately defined the problem?
  • Is my problem statement really a solution?
  • What techniques can I use to sort through this mess of interrelated issues?
  • What would an appreciative inquiry approach to solving this problem look like?
  • Would it be helpful to use the Simplex Process with it’s eights steps to ensure our problem is accurately defined and solution is creative, robust and complete?

Learning and Development Activities

Choose one or two activities that support your preferred learning style

(By clicking on the symbol, those activities relating to the learning style will appear)

Suggestions for activities you can do on the job

  • Select a relatively simple problem. Use the Five Whys technique to get to the root of the problem quickly. i.e. Why is….? Why were…? Why did…? Why did…? Why didn’t…?
  • Define the problem
  • Generate alternatives
  • Evaluate and select alternatives
  • Implement solutions.
  • Identify the Problem
  • Record observations (is) answering questions i.e. What is the process effected? Where do we see the problem? When did the problem occur? How big is the problem?
  • Record comparisons (is not) i.e. What other similar parts could be affected but are not? Where else could I expect to see this problem? When else could the problem have occurred? How big could it be?
  • Identify likely causes
  • Test, if a likely cause does not explain the is vs. is not data, it is not the cause
  • Use an Affinity diagram to organize different elements of information into common themes, then identify the relationship between elements
  • Use CATWOE problem solving technique with peers to stimulate thinking about a problem and/or implementing a solution. For each category come up with 3-4 questions, then work through responses to the questions together.
  • Work with a peer or group using a Cause and Effect Diagram to generate viable solutions to a problem which you already know the cause of.
  • For a business process problem, create together a Flow Chart, Swim Lane Diagram or Systems Diagram to visualize and help determine how the various activities and inputs interact. Look for missing elements and bottlenecks that may be causing the problem.

With your Manager/Team Lead

  • Work together using the Drill Down technique to separate your complex problem into smaller units, which can be solved appropriately as you uncover the factors contributing to the problem.

Here are some ideas that can be pursued on the job, with some coordination. Use these reflective questions to gain more from your learning experience:

  • What are three key things I have learned from this experience?
  • What will I do differently in my work as a result of this experience?
  • Over the next month, attend three problem solving meetings where different techniques are used. Was the technique selected effective? What worked well? How could the problem solving process have been enhanced?
  • Identify someone who is good at problem solving. Ask them to walk you through the process they use from start to finish on two different problems. What did they do that was particularly effective?

UBC Training Programs offered through Organization Development and Learning

  • Thinking Outside the Box: Connecting with the Creative Subconscious
  • Shift Happens
  • Mind Mapping

For UBCO course offerings, please visit the Events page. http://web.ubc.ca/okanagan/facultystaff/events.html

Consider working with a coach following training, to aid in anchoring your learning: http://www.hr.ubc.ca/coaching/

Choose to read one or two of the books listed below. Consider the reflective questions to enhance your learning:

  • What are the key points the author is making?
  • What are three key things I have learned from this reading?
  • What will I do differently in my work as a result of gaining this knowledge?
  • The Back of the Napkin (Expanded Edition): Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures; (2009), D. Roam; Portfolio Hardcover. There is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem. This book teaches how to clarify any problem or sell any idea using a simple set of tools. It shows how thinking with pictures can help you discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve your ability to share your insights.
  • The Memory Jogger Two; (2010), M. Brassard & D. Ritter; GOAL/QPC. An easy to use compact reference guide of tools that are useful in the problem solving process. Suggests when each tool would be most effective and provides an easy to follow example.
  • Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People; (2009), K. Watanabe; Portfolio Hardcover. teaches us to recognize the common elements in the decisions we face every day, and how to think carefully about them. It offers tricks and tips for all from Students to business leaders. The author uses sample scenarios to illustrate his techniques, which include logic trees and matrixes.

Managers/Team Leads

  • Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity; (2010), D. Sibbet; Wiley. Use eye-popping visual tools to energize your people! Just as social networking has reclaimed the Internet for human interactivity and co-creation, the visual meetings movement is reclaiming creativity, productivity, and playful exchange for serious work in groups. The book explains how anyone can implement powerful visual tools, and how these tools are being used in Silicon Valley and elsewhere to facilitate both face-to-face and virtual group work.

Additional Questions

Please contact your Human Resources Representative with any additional questions.

Summary of Links



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Core Competencies - Organizational

Problem solving, definition:.

Accurately assesses problems and effectively and efficiently arrives at excellent solutions.

Key Behaviors

  • Proactively identifies the root causes of problems
  • Identifies and evaluates many possible causes for a problem
  • Notices discrepancies and inconsistencies in information related to problems
  • Asks meaningful and relevant questions to understand problems and potential causes
  • Breaks down complex problems into their fundamental parts
  • Analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions
  • Creatively comes at problems in new and different ways that lead to innovative solutions
  • Uses logical, systematic approaches to break down and solve problems

Proficiency Levels

  • Expert: Models, leads, trains, and motivates multiple levels of personnel to be excellent at problem solving.
  • Advanced: Even in the most complex situations, breaks down problems into their fundamental parts, identifies their root causes, analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions, and creatively attacks problems in ways that lead to innovative solutions.
  • Intermediate: Often breaks down problems into their fundamental parts, identifies their root causes, analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions, and creatively attacks problems in ways that lead to innovative solutions.
  • Basic: Sometimes breaks down problems into their fundamental parts, identifies their root causes, analyzes costs, benefits, risks, and chances for success of potential solutions, and creatively attacks problems in ways that lead to innovative solutions.
  • Awareness: Occasionally solves problems effectively and efficiently, but often fails to do so because key steps in the problem solving process are not done well.


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Problem Solving

Identifies problems and uses logic, judgment, and data to evaluate alternatives and recommend solutions to achieve the desired organizational goal or outcome.

  • Identifies and evaluates problems and possible causes to determine root causes and impacts.
  • Generates solutions, taking into consideration political, organizational and individual realities.
  • Identifies options for solving a problem and evaluates the relative strengths and weaknesses of each option.
  • Uses a logical method for organizing and analyzing information.
  • Coordinates with others within his/her network, subject-matter experts and /or additional senior staff to interpret administrative policies, offer advice and solve related problems.
  • Uses expertise in policies and procedures to identify problems, and makes recommendations for addressing these via communication, job aids, training, etc.
  • Researches issues thoroughly. Does not jump to quick conclusions or formulate opinions based on incorrect assumptions, or inaccurate/incomplete information.

Developmental opportunities for this competency are available from the NIH Training Center .

Contact us to ask a question, provide feedback, or report a problem.

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Problem solving: the mark of an independent employee

Abigail Lewis

Last updated: 24 Aug 2023, 08:40

Problem-solving abilities are essential in virtually any graduate role you can think of. Discover how to develop your problem-solving skills and demonstrate them to eagle-eyed recruiters.

Hero image for Problem solving: the mark of an independent employee

Interviewers will be interested to discover how you'd approach problems that could arise in the workplace.

Problem solving is all about using logic, as well as imagination, to make sense of a situation and come up with an intelligent solution. In fact, the best problem solvers actively anticipate potential future problems and act to prevent them or to mitigate their effects.

Problem-solving abilities are connected to a number of other skills, including:

  • analytical skills
  • innovative and creative thinking
  • a lateral mindset
  • adaptability and flexibility
  • level-headedness
  • resilience (in order to reassess when your first idea doesn’t work)
  • teamworking (if problem solving is a team effort)
  • influencing skills (to get colleagues, clients and bosses to adopt your solutions).

Identifying a problem is often the kernel for a new business or product idea – and, as such, problem solving is an essential ingredient of entrepreneurialism . It is also a key component of good leadership .

Short on time? Watch our one-minute guide to problem solving

  • how to answer problem-solving interview questions
  • how to think of examples of your problem-solving skills
  • a problem-solving technique you can use in any work or life situation.


Our targetjobs careers expert gives you a quick guide to showing off your problem-solving skills in a job interview.

Why all graduates require problem-solving skills in the workplace

Some graduate careers revolve around finding solutions – for example, engineering , management consulting , scientific research and technology . Graduates in other careers, meanwhile, will be expected to solve problems that crop up in the course of their jobs: for example, trainee managers should deal with operational problems (such as delays in the supply chain) or resolve conflict between team members.

In fact, the ability to solve problems is an essential part of any employee’s skill set, even if it isn’t specified on the job description.

Get the insights and skills you need to shape your career journey with Pathways. Learn and practise a selection of simple yet effective reasoning strategies to take your problem solving to the next level.

How to improve your problem-solving skills

How will employers assess your problem-solving skills?

Your problem-solving abilities can be assessed in three ways: by asking for examples of times when you previously solved a problem; by presenting you with certain hypothetical situations and asking how you would respond to them; and by seeing how you apply your problem-solving skills to different tests and exercises.

Competency-based application and interview questions about problem solving

You may be asked for an example of when you solved a problem on an application form – for instance, an engineering firm’s application form has previously included the question ‘Please tell us about a time when you have used your technical skills and knowledge to solve a problem’. But these questions are more likely at interview. Typical problem-solving competency-based questions include:

  • Give me an example of a time when you ran into a problem on a project. What did you do?
  • Give me an example of a difficult problem you had to solve outside of your course. How did you approach it?
  • Tell me about a time you worked through a problem as a team.
  • Have you ever had a disagreement with a team member? How was it resolved?
  • Give me an example of a time when you spotted a potential problem and took steps to stop it becoming one.
  • Give me an example of a time when you handled a major crisis.
  • Give me an example of your lateral thinking.

Hypothetical interview questions about problem solving

Interviewers will also be interested to know how you would approach problems that could arise when you are in the workplace. The precise interview questions will vary according to the job, but common ones include:

  • How would you deal with conflict in the workplace? (This is especially likely to be asked of trainee managers and graduate HR professionals.)
  • What would you do if there is an unexpected delay to one of your projects because of supply chain issues? (This is particularly likely to be asked in construction, logistics or retail interviews).
  • What would you do if a client or customer raised a complaint?
  • What would you do if you noticed that a colleague was struggling with their work?
  • How would you react if given negative feedback by a manager on an aspect of your performance?
  • How would you judge whether you should use your own initiative on a task or ask for help?

Problem-solving exercises and tests for graduate jobs

Different tests that employers could set to gauge your problem-solving skills include:

  • Online aptitude, psychometric and ability tests . These are normally taken as part of the application stage, although they may be repeated at an assessment centre. The tests that are most likely to assess your problem-solving skills are situational judgement tests and any that assess your reasoning, such as inductive reasoning or diagrammatic reasoning tests.
  • Video ‘immersive experiences’ , game-based recruitment exercises or virtual reality assessments. Not all of these methods are widely used yet but they are becoming more common. They are usually the recruitment stage before a face-to-face interview or assessment centre.
  • Case study exercises. These are common assessment centre tasks. You’d be set a business problem, typically related to the sector in which you’d be working, and asked to make recommendations for solving it, either individually or in groups. You’ll also usually be asked to outline your recommendations in either a presentation or in written form , a task that assesses your ability to explain your problem-solving approach.
  • In-tray (or e-tray) exercises. These always used to be set at an assessment centre but nowadays can also be part of the online testing stage. In-tray exercises primarily test your time management skills, but also assess your ability to identify a potential problem and take actions to solve it.
  • Job-specific or task-specific exercises, given at an assessment centre or at an interview. If set, these will be related to the role you are applying for and will either require you to devise a solution to a problem or to spot errors. Civil and structural engineering candidates , for example, will often be required to sketch a design in answer to a client’s brief and answer questions on it, while candidates for editorial roles may be asked to proofread copy or spot errors in page proofs (fully designed pages about to be published).

How to develop and demonstrate your problem-solving skills

Here are some tips on how to develop the problem-solving techniques employers look for.

Seek out opportunities to gain problem-solving examples

Dealing with any of the following situations will help you gain problem-solving skills, perhaps without even realising it:

  • Sorting out a technical problem with your phone, device or computer.
  • Resolving a dispute with a tricky landlord in order to get your deposit back.
  • Carrying out DIY.
  • Serving a demanding customer or resolving a complaint.
  • Finding a way round a funding shortfall in order to pay for travel or a gap year.
  • Turning around the finances or increasing the membership of a struggling student society.
  • Organising a student society’s trip overseas, overcoming unforeseen difficulties on the way.
  • Acting as a course rep or as a mentor for other students.

There should also be opportunities for you to develop problem-solving skills through your studies. Many assignments in subjects such as engineering and computer science are explicitly based around solving a problem in a way that, for example, essay topics in English literature aren’t. But, then, English literature students may also encounter academic problems, such as difficulties in tracking down the best source material.

Some professional bodies (for example, those in construction) run competitions for students, which often ask students to suggest solutions for problems facing the industry; entering these can provide good evidence of your problem-solving skills.

Games such as Sudoku and chess can also strengthen your ability to think strategically and creatively.

Practise recruitment exercises beforehand

Any candidate, no matter how high-flying, may be thrown by undertaking an online test or attending an assessment centre for the first time, so do everything you can to practise beforehand. Access our links to free and paid-for practice tests. Contact your careers service and book in for a mock-interview or mock-assessment centre.

Keep in mind this problem-solving technique

If you’re provided with a scenario or a case study during the graduate recruitment process, you could try using the IDEAL model, described by Bransford and Stein in their book Ideal Problem Solver . It breaks down what you need to do to solve a problem into stages:

  • Identify the issue
  • Define the obstacles
  • Examine your options
  • Act on an agreed course of action
  • Look at how it turns out, and whether any changes need to be made.

Give detail in your answers

You will need to explain how you identified the problem, came up with a solution and implemented it. Quantifiable results are good, and obviously the more complex the situation, the more impressive a successful result is. Follow the STAR technique outlined in our article on competency-based interview questions .

If you tackled a problem as part of a team, explain how your role was important in ensuring the positive solution, but also explain how your group worked together. This could be an opportunity to promote your teamworking skills as well.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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