How to assess problem-solving skills for project managers

Being able to accurately assess a team member’s mastery of problem solving when managing a project is something of a hot topic. Every organization wants to future proof its activities, and problem-solving is typically seen as a magic bullet in this regard.

But what do we actually mean by problem solving skills, and how can these skills be accurately assessed?

There’s been a lot of chatter about whether or not problem solving is a soft skill, and this is at the heart of where the difficulty in assessing them often lies. Usually, problem solving involves a variety of other soft skill sets, such as decision-making, analysis, leadership skills, communication and creativity. So, yes, alongside being a great personal strength, for the most part it is considered to be a soft skill rather than something that’s learned through education or training. That said, the particular methods and processes that project managers in particular use to problem solve – those would be considered a hard skill.

For project managers and project teams, problem solving is their bread and butter and it relies on a huge variety of different techniques and skills that successful problem solvers will all be proficient in, so it’s no wonder that organizations are keen to accurately assess these skills so they can work together even more efficiently.

Why is problem-solving an essential skill?

These skills are a must-have for managers and pretty much all senior roles. In fact, they could be seen as an asset in any team. It wouldn’t be entirely unrealistic to say that good problem solvers are also often the people who most frequently come up with better ways to do things, fresh ideas and their communication skills are often top notch. And as far as employability skills are concerned, problem solvers are right there at the top.

Solving the proficiency question

Picture the scene: you’ve got a great team, but you want to be even better and you may even bring someone new onboard. On paper, everyone has great problem-solving skills, but you want to deep dive a little more and identify ways to work even more efficiently as a team.

This is an important thing to know (especially if you want to bring new people onboard), because according to recent research, up to 85% of resumes contain misleading statements and interviews alone are not always great predictors of role suitability and performance. In an ideal world, you’d start assessing these skills at the point of the recruitment process. Can they be measured by figures, or is it more complex than that?

The traditional approach would be to assess for problem solving skills in one of two ways.  Firstly, you could ask for examples of when the candidate previously solved a problem successfully. There’s quite a lot of merit in this approach: you’d get a feel for how comfortable the candidate is with talking about problem solving, whether something immediately came to mind, and whether or not they had the knowledge to back up what they’d written on their resume.

Another way to test their problem-solving mettle would be to provide a hypothetical scenario and ask for their take on it. Much like the previous approach, this would allow you to assess their response and get a feel for their way of working.

Depending on the organization you work for and the role you undertake, you could be looking for very different things than say, your friend who works in a different industry. But overall, checking out someone’s problem solving skills can be a great way to find out how a person uses creativity, logic, and analytical skills to get to the bottom of really complex issues and situations.

In the case of teams already in situ, you could use these same techniques in a cross-functional workshop environment.

Why do we care so much about problem solving?

Because quite simply, it’s about overcoming obstacles. In fact, this is often what is described as the ‘ultimate goal’ of problem solving from a project management approach.  And while what’s best for one situation may not be for another, it's hard to refute the fact that finding the best solution to resolve an issue is an alluring, if not downright attractive proposition. Problem solving involves a complex way of thinking, that covers discovery, analysis and resolution.

Of course, not everybody is good at problem solving. It’s not an innate skill and not everybody has the skillset required to carve a career out of finding solutions to other people’s problems, which is why it’s so important to use an objective way of gathering information about your workforce and their skill sets. The data you gather can and should be used to help you make informed decisions about who does what within your team and any continuous improvement measures that may be necessary.

Is there a winning strategy for assessing problem solving skills?

The answer is yes and no! It’s often possible to quantify things such as a person’s success ratio when it comes to reaching solutions, or to create a numerical value-based approach to the skills required for effective problem solving. There are also a number of frameworks and methods that can help a team assess and improve their problem solving skills.

Personality tests are often used in this scenario. These kinds of tests can help you spot patterns and characteristics that will likely be relevant to your role as well as putting the spotlight on how candidates will react in certain situations. 

Other employers prefer to use cognitive ability tests. These are all about aptitude and can be used to assess skills in the areas of verbal reasoning, critical thinking and other abilities which all feed into problem solving. These kinds of tests will provide a score which you can use for comparison and rating purposes.

When using these tests and assessing problem solving skills, it’s helpful to keep how you work front of mind as well. Afterall, if you have a hybrid or even a remote working model in place, this may be a better fit for some personality types or those with a more specific skill set. 

A focus on figures

Data analytics and problem-solving often go hand in hand. According to the abovementioned HRForecast* article, there are three key reasons why data analytics is important when it comes to problem solving, and how it can be used to measure improvements across your organization.

  • Firstly, because it can help uncover hidden details, including trends. 
  • Secondly, you’re more likely to be able to create automated models if you have a wealth of data, and this data can be used to help predict relevant solutions. 
  • Thirdly, with relevant data analysis, you can efficiently store it and use later for solving other problems in more or less similar contexts. 

A complex framework

By and large though, a high performing team member who has strong patience, communication and cognitive skills is more likely to approach problem solving in a way that will lead to a successful outcome than not. However, there are a great many factors that can affect a person’s proficiency in problem solving, which makes it a complex beast to analyse. To be truly proficient in problem solving you need to really understand the problem that you’re dealing with. Without this, you’re extremely unlikely to be able to find a solution to your problem – no matter how good your skills are!

To understand the problem you’re facing, it’s important to see the bigger picture that surrounds it, the problems that might hold things up, as well as any key stakeholders, and whatever you identify as the root causes of the problem.

As a manager, you’ll want to look for team members who exhibit skills which more readily lend themselves to problem solving. While personality will play a part in this, communication, group working skills and cognitive skills should all be on your radar as the attributes that can lead to good problem solving.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that resources are an often-forgotten dependency when it comes to problem solving. Afterall, you can have the capabilities to solve problems, but if you don’t have the right resources to hand, you could find the process of solving your problem is seriously slowed down.

Think outside your organization

Another key piece of the problem-solving puzzle relates to external factors. What do we mean by external factors? Well, things like competitors, economic circumstances and wider geo-political or environmental concerns. These things may not directly impact the problem you’re trying to solve, but they will have a knock-on effect to the overarching process, which means they shouldn’t be discounted.

What can we be sure about when it comes to assessing problem solving skills?

Effective problem-solving really does require a skill set that is both broad and allows teams and organizations to move forward to achieve their strategic and operational aims. 

It may not be black and white but experienced problem solvers understand the need to drill down into a problem so that they can then approach it in ‘chunks’ and increase the likelihood of coming up with a workable solution.

We’ve long been fascinated with the idea of problem solving, and in particular, solving the question of how to assess problem solving skills. We could be forgiven for thinking that it should be straightforward, but the reality is that problem solving is a much more complex process.

But in what is perhaps one of the most startling examples of why problem-solving skills are so important, the recent pandemic has made organizations of all shapes and sizes problem-solve on an almost unprecedented scale. Being able to quickly change ways of working, learn to use new pieces of tech and generally find work arounds for systems and processes that had been unchanged for years has been a critical element in the success or failure of organizations around the world.  

Now that a hybrid approach is an accepted part of the ‘new normal’, we’ve watched with interest the emerging design thinking methods and problem-solving strategies in companies. Over the last few years, they have become well and truly embedded in the everyday routines of many organizations, who once swore that traditional meetings and in-person discussions were the only way to solve a problem.

We like to think of problem-solving skills as a kind of superpower. Not dissimilar to thinking skills, they allow people to develop strategies that will inform their questions and ultimately lead to answers.

Your next steps

If you’re thinking about assessing problem solving skills within your team, or are looking for ways to assess those skills in a recruitment setting, it’s important to have a plan. Think about the end of goal of your assessment and then choose an approach that will support that.

Make sure you have the tools in place to allow your teams to problem solve to the absolute best of their ability. This may mean using new ways of holding workshops or switching to a design thinking approach and collaborating across a wider remote team.  Or it could be as simple as finding a way for every contributor to feel involved from wherever they are in the world.

Whatever you do, remember that in an age where the workplace is constantly evolving and economic turbulence looks set for some time, having a workforce that is both able and armed with the tools and culture to let them problem solve to a high level can truly be the difference between sinking or swimming.

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