4 Problem Solving Techniques: How to Solve Problems at Work


“Problems are nothing but wake-up calls for creativity”
—Gerhard Gschwandtner


“All life is problem solving.”
—Karl Popper


While 87 percent of grads feel they’re ready for a full-time job, 50 percent of managers disagree. This is known as the Skills Gap.

I’m not just talking about hard skills, such as content marketing, sales, or data science, but I’m also talking about “soft skills,” which 57 percent of leaders say are more important than hard skills.

To be more specific, soft skills are defined as “less tangible and harder to quantify, such as etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk.”

Some are more important than others.

In fact, 62 percent of recruiters reported searching for problem solvers. Being able to develop solutions on your own is invaluable, because it drives innovation and increases efficiency.

Plus, how annoying is it when someone asks you something they could’ve easily googled or answered themselves if they sat and thought about it for a little? Pretty annoying.

You don’t want to be that person your boss is constantly having to coddle. Instead, aim to be the proactive problem solver, who makes their manager’s life easier.

That’s how you’ll accelerate your career.

Now that you know why problem solving is important, let’s dissect some of the best problem solving techniques so you can learn how to solve problems at work.


1. Rubber Duck Problem Solving

In software engineering, rubber duck debugging or rubber ducking is a method of debugging code.

The name is a reference to a story in the book The Pragmatic Programmer in which a programmer would carry around a rubber duck and debug their code by forcing themselves to explain it, line-by-line, to the duck.

Many other terms exist for this technique, often involving different inanimate objects, but the point is the same…

Think hard about your question before you bother someone else, and you’ll usually stumble upon the answer yourself.

This happens to a lot of people on Stack Exchange, a reddit-like forum—they solve their own problems by thinking hard about what they’re trying to ask.


Ask the right question

Why is it that properly formulating your question often yields you your answer?

I don’t know how many times this has happened:

  • I have a problem
  • I decide to bring it to stack overflow
  • I awkwardly write down my question
  • I realize that the question doesn’t make any sense
  • I take 15 minutes to rethink how to ask my question
  • I realize that I’m attacking the problem from a wrong direction entirely.
  • I start from scratch and find my solution quickly.

Does this happen to you? Sometimes asking the right question seems like half the problem. (source)

Ask the right question


Many times, we’re just thinking about problems in our head, and not writing it out, which can confuse us when we try to solve the problem, because we’re not putting in the effort to writing a good and detailed question.

Here’s what a good question looks like, according to Stack Exchange’s founder:

  • Describe what’s happening in sufficient detail. Provide the necessary background to understand what’s going on, even if we aren’t experts in your particular area.
  • Tell us why you need to know the answer. What led you here? Is it idle curiosity or is this somehow blocking you on a project? We don’t need your whole life story, just give us some context here.
  • Share your research on your problem; what have you found so far? Why didn’t it work? And if you didn’t do any research … should you even be asking? If you’re inviting us to spend our valuable time helping you, it’s only fair that you put in a reasonable amount of your valuable time into crafting a decent question. Help us help you!

The critical part of rubber duck problem solving is to totally commit to asking a thorough, detailed question of an imaginary person or inanimate object. (I like to pretend I’m texting one of my smarter friends personally.)

While this can be scary at first, it feels better and better as time rolls on, and you get used to solving problems this way. Not to mention, it freakin’ works.

The effort of walking an imaginary someone through your problem, step by step and in some detail, is what will often lead you to your answer. If you aren’t willing to put the effort into fully explaining the problem and how you’ve attacked it, you can’t reap the benefits of thinking deeply about your own problem before you ask others to.


2. Lateral Thinking

Traditional Logic v. Lateral Thinking“Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces.” (source)

Pretend you are driving a car in the middle of a thunderstorm, and you happen upon three people on the side of the road.

One of them is a frail old woman, who looks on the verge of collapse. Another is a friend who once saved your life. The other is the romantic interest of your dreams, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet him or her.

You have only one other seat in the car.

Who do you pick up?

There’s a good reason to choose any of the three.

The old woman needs help.

The friend deserves your payback.

And clearly, a happy future with the man or woman of your dreams will have an enormous long-term impact on your life.

So, who should you pick?

[Dramatic pause]

The old woman, of course. Then, give the car keys to your friend, and stay behind with the romantic interest to wait for the bus!”

This example is from the book Smartcuts, which teaches readers the power of lateral thinking.

“Lateral thinking is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.”

The above dilemma is a lateral thinking exercise. It’s like a puzzle in which the most elegant solution is revealed only when you attack it sideways.

New solutions emerge when you question the assumptions upon which a problem is based (in the above example, it’s that you can only help one person).

TLDR: Question the obvious quandary. Ask yourself: Is this really a quandary in the first place?


How to think laterally

List all assumptions.

Next time you face a dilemma, write out all the assumptions inherent to the question.

Here’s another example.


Pretend that you’re trapped in a magical room with only two exits.

Through the first exit is a room made from a giant magnifying glass, and the blazing hot sun will fry you to death.

Through the second door is a room with a fire-breathing dragon. Which do you go through?

The first door, of course. Simply wait until the sun goes down.


If we were to write out the assumptions inherent to the question, the list may include:

  • You want to get out of the room
  • You have to choose one of the two options
  • You have to do something now
  • Room One will kill you no matter what (or so we think!)
  • Room Two will kill you no matter what


Verbalize the convention.

Once you’ve listed assumptions, ask yourself: “How would a typical person approach this problem?”

After mapping out the obvious, ask yourself: “What if I couldn’t go this route?”


Rewrite the question.

TLDR: Question the question, or rearrange the pieces.

In the dragon room example above, you may ask to transform the question from: “Which door do I go through?” to:

  • “Will you go through one of them?”
  • “Will these really kill you?”
  • “Do you even need to go through one of these doors?”


More Resources:


3. Trial and error

Sometimes it’s most efficient to just try solving your problem.

Trial and error is a way of solving problems through repeated, varied attempts which are continued until success, or until the agent stops trying.

This method is only efficient when you can base your attempts on some prior knowledge and information.

Study.com provides this example:

A programmer using a new language knows that quotes should surround pieces of text but is unsure whether that language uses single quotes or double quotes. Rather than look it up, it will be quicker just to try both (which would be the trial), since there are only two possibilities. If single quotes are incorrect (which would be an error), then the programmer will try again with double quotes.

But, if you have no knowledge of how programming languages work at all, then you’re out of luck. No amount of playing around with random bits of text is likely to get you to a working computer program. So when there are many, even unlimited, options, other problem-solving methods are sometimes best.

While the trial and error approach affords you numerous chances to find a solution, it’s not meant to help you learn why something works a certain way. The solution is the most important factor then, in this problem solving method.

Stay away from this method if your situation has too many options, because it won’t be feasible to test every single solution.

Trial and error is best for situations that give you copious amounts of time and safety to find a solution. It’s definitely not a method for finding the best—or even all—the solutions.

Trial and Error

Features of Trial and Error:

  • solution-oriented: trial and error makes no attempt to discover why a solution works, merely that it is a solution.
  • problem-specific: trial and error makes no attempt to generalize a solution to other problems.
  • non-optimal: trial and error is generally an attempt to find a solution, not all solutions, and not the best solution.
  • needs little knowledge: trials and error can proceed where there is little or no knowledge of the subject. (source)
Trial and Error


So who uses this technique?

  • Chemists. It’s the main way they find new drugs, such as antibiotics. They simply try chemicals randomly until they find one with the desired effect.
  • Gamers. Video game players often use trial and error to succeed in a game.
  • Sports teams. They use it to qualify for and/or progress through the playoffs and win the championship by testing different tactics—plays, lineups and formations—with the goal of defeating everyone along the way to victory. This is especially crucial in playoff series in which multiple wins are required to advance, where a team that loses a game will have the opportunity to try new tactics to find a way to win, if they are not eliminated.
  • Scientists. The scientific method is regarded as a trial and error strategy because scientists are basically creating and testing hypotheses.


4. How to Solve it

This problem solving technique was created for mathematicians, but it’s easily translated to any type of problem solving.

It involves four principles:

  1. First, you must understand the problem.
  2. After understanding, make a plan.
  3. Execute on the plan.
  4. Review your work. How could it be better?


Principle 1: Understand the problem.

Many people skip this step, and it’s the most important one.

How can you solve a problem that you don’t fully understand otherwise?

The only way to get a better understanding of anything is to ask more questions. For example, if we’re trying to solve a math problem, you might ask yourself:

  • What are you asked to find or show?
  • Can you restate the problem in your own words?
  • Can you think of a picture or diagram that might help you understand the problem?
  • Is there enough information to enable you to even find a solution?
  • Do you understand all the words used in stating the problem?
  • Do you need to ask a question to get the answer?

Another way to think about the problem is through a set of heuristics that create a more accessible problem.

heuristics chartPrinciple 2: Devise a plan.

The good news is this step gets easier and easier as the years roll on and continually solve more problems.

To help you get started solving your problem though, here are a few good problem solving strategies to consider.


Guess and Check

Guess and Check” is a problem-solving strategy that students can use to solve mathematical problems by guessing the answer and then checking that the guess fits the conditions of the problem.

While it may not be vital to check your work in school (I was horrible at this), it is vital to check your guesses in the real world, because whereas all school assignments have definitive solutions, in the real world, the solution is often unknown, which means you must verify it.

To boost this strategy’s effectiveness, base your guesses on the insights you gleaned from your previous guesses. This is known as making an educated guess or hypothesis based on your previous experiences.

When you’re completely stuck, guessing and checking can get you going, but as problems get increasingly difficult, other strategies are more effective.


MISC Strategies
  • Make an orderly list
  • Eliminate possibilities
  • Consider special cases
  • Use direct reasoning


Also suggested:
  • Look for a pattern
  • Draw a picture
  • Solve a simpler problem
  • Use a model
  • Work backward
  • Use a formula
  • Be creative


Principle 3: Execute your plan.

This is the easy part. The hard part was planning. Get to work executing and iterating, as necessary.


Principle 4: Review/extend.

It’s always important to take the time to reflect on what you have done, what worked and what didn’t.

This will enable you to better predict which strategy to use to solve future problems, if they relate to the original one at all.


Run toward your problems.

“Running away from a problem only increases the distance from the solution.”

Look at your problems as fun puzzles that always have a solution, no matter how hard it may be to find it.

By not bugging your co-workers or boss and solving problems yourself, you’ll become the most loved problem solver in the office.

You’re welcome. 😉