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Skills and Competencies for Problem Solving

Problem-solving skills

Psychologist Robert Sternberg identified three types of intelligence, which all people use at some time or another:

  • Analytical intelligence involves the use of logic and reason to maneuver from A to B.
  • Practical intelligence involves finding the best fit between your actions and the demands of the situation, often by applying skills learned through experience. And,
  • Creative intelligence involves thinking “outside the box” to come up with novel ideas.

Solving different problems will require different types of intelligence.

You typically use an analytical approach when a problem is abstract, requires you to analyze information to find a solution, and is logical in nature, or when a familiar situation or an expected course of events is disrupted, and you need to identify the obstacles, address them, and get back on track.

Practical skills are used to solve problems in everyday life, typically involving material things. They aren’t easy to learn or control, because they draw on the problem solvers’ extensive knowledge and experience solving similar problems.

The problem solver will most likely find a solution intuitively. “Street-wise” people and those who have lived a long, rich life often demonstrate practical intelligence.

Practical problem solving doesn’t involve a high degree of critical thinking, but it does rely on your ability to set your emotional reactions aside and accept the way things are.

If your computer deletes your work for the day, reacting emotionally isn’t going to get the information back. It’s more practical to move on and find ways to make up for lost time.

Practical skills can’t be acquired or sharpened as readily as creative or analytical skills can, so organizations can’t encourage people to formally acquire this kind of intelligence. But they should recognize, encourage, and reward the application of practical problem-solving skills.

Problems involving unforeseen complications typically require analytical or practical problem-solving skills to break down the problem and overcome it.

But unusual or unfamiliar problems that don’t come with a lot of information often require lateral, creative thinking — in other words, creative intelligence. When you know where you want to be in the future, but don’t know how to get there, a creative solution may be just what you need.

Creative problem solving starts with being open to the idea that new, fresh solutions are possible. You put aside your assumptions and suspend judgment of your ideas while you come up with them.

One method is to ask yourself lots of questions to free your mind from your usual thinking patterns and kick-start your imagination. You might ask “What would be an unusual way of doing this?” or even “What would a child suggest?” Asking “What if…?” as many times as possible can help you escape your own preconceptions.

Some problems require a combination of the different problem-solving approaches. If you stay open to the possibility of using a variety of skills, you’ll have an advantage over people who tend to fall back on the same way of meeting challenges.