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Problem solving and decision making

 "This has shown increasing demand as employers are acknowledging that graduates are expected to think for themselves and perhaps find different ways of working and thinking creatively"

Carl Gilleard, Former Chief Executive, Association of Graduate Recruiters

How to be an effective problem solver

We all use our initiative and creativity to solve problems every day. For example, you might have to change your route due to traffic congestion, solve an IT issue, or work out what to make for dinner with the ingredients left in the fridge. The challenges you may face in your professional career are likely to be a bit more complicated than these examples, however the skills and processes you use to come up with solutions are largely the same, as they rely on your ability to analyse a situation and decide on a course of action.

Problem solving and decision making are likely to be essential aspects of a graduate-level job, so it is important to show a recruiter that you have the personal resilience and the right skills to see problems as challenges, make the right choices and learn and develop from your experiences.

You are likely to have to apply techniques of problem solving on a daily basis in a range of working situations, for example:

  • using your degree subject knowledge to resolve technical or practical issues
  • diagnosing and rectifying obstacles relating to processes or systems
  • thinking of new or different ways of doing your job
  • dealing with emergencies involving systems or people.

You may have to use a logical, methodical approach in some circumstances, or be prepared to use creativity or lateral thinking in others; you will need to be able to draw on your academic or subject knowledge to identify solutions of a practical or technical nature; you will need to use other skills such as communication and planning and organising to influence change.

Whatever issue you are faced with, some steps are fundamental:

I - Identify the problem

D - Define the problem

E - Examine alternatives

A - Act on a plan

L - Look at the consequences

This is the IDEAL model of problem-solving. There are other, more complex methods, but the steps are broadly similar.

What do recruiters want?

Problem solving, decision making and initiative can be asked for in a variety of ways. Many adverts will simply ask for candidates who can “take the initiative to get a job done" or "have the ability to resolve problems"; others, however, may not make it so obvious. Phrases such as those below also indicate that initiative and problem solving are key requirements of the role:

  • “We need people who can set goals and surpass them; people who have ideas, flexibility, imagination and resilience…”
  • “Take responsibility and like to use their initiative; Have the confidence and the credibility to challenge and come up with new ways of working…”
  •  “An enquiring mind and the ability to understand and solve complex challenges are necessary…”
  • “We are looking for fresh, innovative minds and creative spirits...”
  • “Ambitious graduates who can respond with pace and energy to every issue they face…”

These quotations are all taken from graduate job adverts and they are all asking for more or less the same two things:

  • The ability to use your own initiative, to think for yourself, to be creative and pro-active.
  • The ability to resolve problems, to think logically or laterally, to use ingenuity to overcome difficulties and to research and implement solutions.

These are important skills which recruiters look for. They want staff who will take the personal responsibility to make sure targets are met; who can see that there might be a better way of doing something and are prepared to research and implement change; who react positively, not negatively, when things go wrong.

Gaining and developing problem solving and decision making skills

Below are some examples of how you may already have gained decision making and problem solving skills at the University of Bradford and beyond. There may also be some useful suggestions here if you are looking to develop your skills further:

  • dissertation - researching and analysing a specific issue and providing recommendations
  • group projects - overcoming challenges e.g. a change of circumstances, technical problems, etc.
  • part-time jobs, internships and work experience* - dealing with challenging customers, identifying and solving issues in your role, completing projects, etc.
  • organising events - deciding on date, venue, marketing; solving logistical issues, etc.
  • travel - organising trips, planning and reacting to change, etc.
  • enter competitions - to provide a solution to a challenge.

*Using your initiative in a work context is about spotting opportunities to develop the business. This can, for example, include learning new technology to make your work more productive and efficient; being willing to look at processes and systems to see if there are things you can suggest to improve workflow; recognising opportunities that will improve the business and being prepared to follow them through; volunteering to learn new tasks so you can be adaptable and help out in emergencies or at peak periods.

How can you prove to a recruiter that you have these skills?

Think of examples of when you have used these skills. See the above section for suggestions, and then to provide a full and satisfying answer you can structure it using the STAR technique:

  • S - Define the Situation
  • T - Identify the Task
  • A - Describe your Action
  • R - Explain the Result

Here is a detailed example:

Define the SITUATION: (where were you? what was your role? what was the context?) 

I work shifts at a call centre which manages orders for several online companies. One evening I had to deal with a very irate customer who had been promised a delivery a week ago and had still not received it. 

Identify the TASK: (what was the problem? what was your aim? what had to be achieved?) 

Whilst listening to the customer, I accessed his record. This was no help in solving the problem as it simply reiterated what the customer was saying and did not give any more up-to-date information. I promised the customer that I would do my best to help but I would need to do some research and phone him back. He reluctantly accepted this.

Describe the ACTION you took: (be clear about what you did) 

I could not check with the office as they were closed and my supervisor had already left for the evening, so I searched for the same product code to see if I could find updated information on other records.  This confirmed that the product was now back in stock and that several deliveries were actually scheduled for the following day. There seemed to have been an error which had resulted in my customer’s record not being updated, so I reserved the item for this customer and then persuaded the Logistics Manager to include him in the schedule.

Highlight the RESULT you achieved: (what was the outcome? Be specific and, if possible, quantify the benefits)

My shift was over but I telephoned him back and explained what I had done and hoped very much that it was convenient for him to accept delivery the following day. He was delighted with the initiative I had taken and thanked me. Two days later my supervisor told me that I had received excellent feedback from a customer and I would be nominated for Employee of the Month.

To use the STAR technique effectively, remember:

  • You are the STAR of the story, so focus on your own actions.
  • Tell a story and capture the interest of the reader. Include relevant details but don’t waffle.
  • Move from the situation, to the task, to your actions, and finally to the result with a consistent, conversational approach.

A detailed statement like this can be used in online applications, or used at interview. It is also easy to adapt it for use in your CV, for example:

  1. My work experience at the call centre required me to develop good problem solving skills when dealing with difficult customers with stock and delivery issues.
  2. I have good customer service skills developed through resolving problems relating to stock and deliveries whilst working for a call centre.

Adapting your examples

The example above, for instance, could easily be altered to prove your communication skills, show that you can adapt and be flexible, and that you have great customer service skills.  It is worthwhile spending time writing statements like this about all your experiences and then adapting them to match each recruiters’ specific requirements.

Related key words / skills

  •  Leadership
  • Analytical and logical thinking
  • Initiative
  • Recommending
  • Creative thinking
  •  Adaptability and flexibility
  • Time management
  • Researching
  • Applying knowledge

Practical help

We run regular workshops on employability skills, and you can book an appointment with one of our advisers to discuss how to improve your employability in relation to your career choices.

Further reading

More articles:

You can also check out our Assessement Centre and Psychometric Tests pages for details of the problem-solving exercises recruiters use in their selection processes.

Other relevant websites with general information on skills are:

  • Prospects – features articles on skills and how to evidence them.
  • TARGETjobs – has details on essential skills and competencies.