Problem Solving Skills

Please watch the video below for a break down of problem solving through creativity.

Self Reflection

Having watched the video above
  • How are you marketing yourself to your possible employers and in general?
  • What methods do you use to prepare your mind to get into problem solving mode?
  • Which tools and people can you use to acquire or come to a desired solution?

What are problem solving skills?

  • Problem solving skills are techniques that enable an individual to use various methods in order to find the solution to a question.
  • Problem-solving skills require analytical thinking in order to overcome a variety of tasks. Problems are encountered in a number of different ways, including academic tasks such as formulating an argumentative essay, debug a computer problem, complete a level in a video game or even make dinner.

How to Brainstorm a Solution to a Problem

  • Please watch the video below for a break down on how to get to a solution to a problem.

Problem Solving Skills Improvement

  • Human beings have the ability to evaluate information and situations, breaking down a problem into smaller tasks. For example, when making dinner, logical sequential steps must be completed in order.
  • In order to make spaghetti, one must first boil water, and the cook the noodles. As simple as the process may be one still needs to make sure that they time how long the noodles cook and practice their technique to ensure that the noodles don’t stick together.
  • Like cooking noodles, problem solving skills can be improved with both time and practice.
  • In order to develop better problem solving skills, one should develop the ability to take initiative, apply deductive reasoning and lateral thinking and be persistent until the problem is actually solved. Lateral thinking is often equated with creative solutions, ones that are “outside the box.” The ability to look at a situation from an unexpected perspective is often key to a creative solution.


The scenarios used are based on a 3rd year UJ student-Sipho- who is struggling financially because her parents income is considered too high for her to get a bursary from NASFAS, but her families financial responsibilities are too many for her to afford school fees. This has left Sipho with a problem that needs solving.
Use the following slides to help you to:
  • Define the problem
  • Brain storm ideas
  • Decide on a solution
  • Implement the solution
  • Review the results.

Be sure to answer the questions for yourself as you read through them!

RECAP:Ideal Method of Problem Solving

Remember to use the IDEAL METHOD as you solve your problem using the activities below:
  1. Identify the problem
  2. Define the problem
  3. Examine options
  4. Act on a plan
  5. Look at the consequences.

Problem-solving skills are not impossible, but they do require persistence.

Step 1: Define the Problem

Problem solving activities that help you phrase and understand the problem you are trying to solve:
1. Newspaper Headline – Try writing your problem as if it were a headline in a newspaper. You can write it as if the problem still exists, or as if the problem were already solved. Try Tabloid headlines for even more creative ideas.
Example: “UJ student too ‘rich’ for NASFAS but too ‘poor’ to afford school fees in need of a Solution!.”
2. Future Party – Imagine it’s one year from today; what did you solve in the last year? How is the world different based on the solution? What were the steps you took to solve the problem?
Example: “I can’t believe it’s been a year since I was struggling to finish my degree because I was struggling to get funding.”
3. 40-20-10-5 – Explain your problem in up to 40 words. Then cut it down to 20 words; then to 10, then finally to only 5 words. These 5 words are the root of your problem (and likely the root of your solution as well).
Example: (Starting at 10 words) “I need a way to pay for my school fees.”
4. Explain Life I’m Five – Explain your problem as if you were talking to a 5-year old kid. Use basic language and simple metaphors if necessary. Inspired by the subreddit ELI5.
Example: “If I cant pay fees, I cant finish school. This will result in me not getting the job I want”

Step 2: Brainstorm Ideas

Problem solving activities that help you generate a list of possible solutions that will solve your problem:
5. Dumbest Idea First – Hold a contest to get the dumbest idea out first. Encourage everyone to think of the absolute dumbest possible solutions to the problem. After you have a long list, go back through and see which ones may not be all that dumb.
Example: “Get donations through facebook”
6. What Would X Do – Pretend you’re someone famous (or someone you admire) and ask yourself how they would solve the problem, what options would they consider?
Example: (Beyonce would find a way to make money and be independent by getting a job!)
7. 10x10x10 Matrix – Generate a list of 10 ideas for solving the problem. Pick one of those ideas and generate 10 variations of that idea. Pick one idea from the new list and generate 10 more variations.
Example: (with just 5 ideas):
–Round 1 : Get donations
–Round 2: Get a job
–Round 3: Start a side business
Round 4: Speak to the university for a possible payment plan.
Round 5: Get a bank loan
Note: Some of the exercises may not produce the perfect solution, but they can get you thinking differently.

Step 3: Decide on a Solution

Problem solving activities that help you narrow your list of possible solutions down to the best solution.
8. Futures Wheel – Pick a possible solution and write it in the center of a piece of paper. List possible direct results/consequences of the solution around the center idea. List possible indirect results/consequences based on the direct results/consequences. (MIND MAPPING)
Example: Getting a job that takes up too much time may result in me failing to balance my studies. Good grades are important.
9. Coin-Flip – When deciding between two equally good solutions, flip a coin. When the coin is in the air, take note of what you secretly hope the result is and go with that (if you really can’t decide between the two, then go with the actual result of the coin-flip). Inspired by this poster.
Example: Heads is job outside campus and pays well, tails is a job that is on campus and can work around my timetable. *Toss.* (I really want to have have time to study) Job on campus it is!

Step 4: Implement the Solution

Problem solving activities that help you implement the solution you have chosen:
10. End in Mind – To create your plan, start with the end in mind and work backwards.  Establish key milestones and dates in reverse order, starting with the end-of-project celebration and ending with today.
Example: Job that pays bills (5pm), Job that works around my school work (4:58pm), Job that is not too exhausting (4:57pm), job that will give me essential skills (4:47), …
11. Gamification – Turn the completion of your project into a game. Establish rules for how you earn points, create badges to celebrate milestones and track game progress. Learn more about gamification.
Example: For each relevant advert you find, you get 1 point. 100 points earned when you get shortlisted, 500 points earned when you get an interview. 1,000 points for each job offer you get.
12. Be a Character – Add some fun to your work by executing your plan as if you were a fictional character. Think about how they would operate and get into character.
Example: (as Sherlock Holmes) I deduce that a good CV will get me a lot of interviews.

Step 5: Review the Results

Problem solving activities that help you review the results you achieved and the way you achieved them:
19. Stop-Start-Continue – Review the way you completed your project and pick activities you should stop (things you did on this project that you don’t think are necessary for future projects), start (things you didn’t do on this project but that you should do on future projects) and continue (things you did on the project that you should do on future projects).
Example: STOP selling yourself short. START personalising each CV to suit the job post and company style. CONTINUE looking for more adverts around campus.
The purpose of the above problem solving activities is to get you to think about the problem in a different way and have some fun while solving it–both of which will enhance your creativity in finding and implementing a solution.