Bruce held our partners spellbound for two and a half hours.
Graham Baragwanath, Managing Partner (fmr.), Deloitte Consulting Canada

Teaching Problem Solving

It may well be true that today’s information environment, in which there are so many answers to so many questions available at the tip of their fingers, many young people today are simply not in the habit of thinking on their feet. Without a lot of experience puzzling through problems, it should be no surprise that Gen Zers are often puzzled when they encounter unanticipated problems.

Here’s the thing: Nine out of ten times, you don’t want your youngest least experienced employees on the front-lines to make important decisions on the basis of their own judgment anyway, especially not if they could instead rely on the accumulated experience of the organization.

The reality is that most of the problems new young employees are likely to encounter in the workplace should not require them to make judgment calls. Most of the problems they encounter are probably regularly recurring problems – even though the young employee in question may have no experience with the particular problem at hand. Nonetheless, the problem has occurred before and been solved before, probably many times over. Very few of the problems they encounter should be difficult to anticipate.

Think about it: How many problems do your new young employees encounter that haven’t already been solved before?

The key to teaching anybody the basics of problem-solving is to, first, teach them to anticipate the most common recurring problems and prepare them with ready-made solutions: First, they will become familiar with commonly recurring problems and therefore be more likely to try to help prevent those problems and also be less often surprised when those problems do arise. Second, they will build up a repertoire of ready-made solutions so there will be a bunch of problems they can solve without having to chase anybody down – they will have the solution right there in their back pocket. Third, from learning and implementing ready-made solutions, they will learn a lot about the anatomy of a good solution. This will put them in a much better position to borrow from ready-made solutions and improvise a better solution when they do encounter the rare unanticipated problem.

Ready-made solutions are just best practices that have been captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job-aids. The most common job-aid is a simple check-list:

  • If A happens, you do B
  • If C happens, you do D
  • If E happens, you do F

What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to help your new young employees master best practices for dealing with recurring problems, so they don’t have to “problem-solve” anew each time? If you already have such job-aids at your disposal, then how can you make better use of them as learning tools? You need to get everybody using those tools. Use them as to help your young employees (and probably those of all ages) to anticipate and prepare for the most common problems, to build up their repertoires of ready-made solutions, and to learn the anatomy of a good solution so they are in a better position to improvise when there is truly a call for a judgment call.

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