18 Problem Solving Questions

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to using questions to solve the problems you encounter. Here are 18 questions to help you design your own approach.

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Whatever your path, at some point you’re going to come smack up against problems that feel like in impenetrable wall. While there is no magic wand solution to making that wall disappear, asking questions is the next best thing. Asking questions can help you pinpoint where the trouble is, identify creative approaches to solving the problems, and even change your perception of reality so the problem disappears (or at least becomes irrelevant).

[See 14 Secrets to Career Change Success.]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to using questions to solve the problems you encounter. So instead, here are 18 questions to help you design your own approach. You’ll probably find some questions more effective than others, depending on the situation.

This isn’t a step-by-step list of questions to ask, so scan the list and see which ones jump out at you. Pick one and start there. See what happens. Then pick another one and dig into that. Build on what gives you results and toss what doesn’t. Use these questions as a starting point for a self-taught mastery of problem solving.

[See 7 Toxic Attitudes That Can Harm Your Career.]

1. What are the obstacles? Take inventory of the obstacles getting in your way. Get them out of your head and onto paper so you can start sorting through them. It sounds like a no-brainer, but I’m always amazed at how often people leave their problems in the abstract, flying around inside their brains.

2. What one change could I make that would make the biggest impact? Sometimes one big change can make seemingly impenetrable obstacles suddenly feel more permeable. It can shift things enough that the other contributing factors lose their potency or become irrelevant. Or it can take you far enough down the path toward a solution that you can get a new perspective.

3. Which obstacles can be easily removed? If there are obstacles you’re facing that are easily removed, start there to get some momentum. You might be surprised at how much difference it makes.

4. What needs to happen for this problem to disappear? Look at the mechanics of the problem. Take a look at the factors contributing to the problem, and then explore which ones need to be changed, improved, or eliminated.

 5. Where are the sticking points? Think of getting from where you are to where you want to go as a process flow. First this happens, then that, and then that. Map out a step-by-step ideal world flow of how you could get there. Then look at that flow and identify the sticking points by comparing it with your less-than-ideal world situation. Where are the sticking points?

6. How can I improve this process? Instead of looking at it from a problem perspective, look at it as a process improvement exercise. How could you improve your process? How could you improve how you approach it? How could you improve the efforts you are making?

 [See more job advice at U.S. News Careers.]

7. Am I the problem? How? No amount of external problem-solving will do the trick if the obstacle is really created by you. Do you have attitudes, habits, beliefs, etc. that are creating this problem?

8. Are there other paths to the end I’m looking for? Write down the obvious way to get from where you are to where you want to go. Then ignore it. Come up with as many other paths as you can think of for getting there.

9. Can I change any of the variables? Often when we look at problems, we see them in terms of a finite set of parameters. List all the variables you see (how much time it takes, who is involved, whether to do something yourself or hire someone to do it, etc.) and play with changing them. What effect could that have?

10. Who has done this before? If someone else has already invented the wheel, don’t bang your head bloody trying to create it again. Who else has been up against the problem you’re encountering? Can you talk to them? Read about how they approached it?

11. Does this really matter? This might seem like a funny question to include in a list with a problem solving focus, but the ultimate in problem solving is when the problem instantaneously ceases to exist. Sometimes we get so caught up in making something happen, or doing it a certain way, that we don’t realize it is taking more of our energy than solving it would benefit us. If you are only trying to solve the problem “because it’s there,” consider dropping it and focusing your energy and effort elsewhere.

12. What would I do if I didn’t think this were a problem? Sometimes our perception that a problem exists becomes the problem itself. Try exploring what you would do if you didn’t see whatever you’re up against as a problem. The example that comes to mind is two people without a degree. One says, “I don’t have a degree, so I’m limited in my options.” The other says, “I don’t have a degree…now how can I start creating more options?”

13. What information do I need? What information am I missing? Sometimes problems exist because we don’t have enough information to solve them. Identifying what information you need and what information you’re missing gives you a starting point change that.

14. How would ______ solve this? Get out of your own story and look at it from someone else’s point of view. If there is someone you especially admire, or someone who is well known for solving things like this, ask yourself how they would solve it.

15. How would I solve this if I had to take an opposite-brained approach? Are you more naturally linear or creative in your approach to things? Whichever it is, spend some time doing the opposite. Look for resources to help you take an approach to problem-solving that is the opposite of your natural tendencies.

16. How many solutions can I come up with? Don’t worry about quality with this one. Go for quantity. Make it a game. You’ll probably come up with a whole lot of goofy ideas, but they just might pave the way for some good ones.

17. What new habits could I create that would help me overcome this? If your goals are going to come to fruition, you are the one who is going to have to be the driving force. Are there any habits that could help make you more effective, reducing friction and limitations in the process?

18. How could ____ relate to my problem? At the end of my sessions with clients, I used to pull a tarot card and read the explanation in the accompanying book. There was no divination intent to it. Instead, it was accompanied by the question, “Does this relate to your current situation in any way?” Sometimes it didn’t, but 75 percent of the time that question yielded valuable insights. The card offered something specific for their minds to bounce off, helping them make random connections and have unexpected insights.

You can do that with just about anything, whether it is a tarot card, news about miners stuck in a mine (how could this relate to my career?), your favorite artist’s approach to painting, or the traffic on the way to work. It offers a way to get outside your standard set of thoughts and associations.

Questions alone won’t solve your problems. You also have to combine them with action and persistent, consistent effort. But the more good questions you ask, the more problem-solving potential you have.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.

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