They say the three certainties in life are change, death and taxes, but while you’re being pessimistic you may as well include problems. This leaves people with two options, learn how to avoid these problems or learn how to tackle them. This article looks at the latter; at its importance and how it’s done. As said by William S. Halsey, an Admiral in the US Navy, “All problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them but confront them. Touch a thistle timidly, and it pricks you; grasp it boldly, and its spines crumble.”


It may not always be stated explicitly, but most employers will be looking at how well-tuned your problem solving skills are throughout the application process (and your career). This could be during group activities, asking for examples in an application, or an off-the-wall question in one-to-one interviews. It is vital for your career and even your personal life that you master the skill of problem solving.


“How many pumpkins can you fit in a bus?”

Pumpkins on a bus


Faced with such a seemingly absurd question, people can often be confused about how to proceed. What is important to note is that the interviewer will be more interested in your method of solving the problem than in the answer you reach. One tactic you could try is the IDEAL model, described by Bransford and Stein in their book Ideal Problem Solver. This breaks down what you need to do into five steps: Identifying the problem, defining any obstacles, examining all options available, acting on the agreed course of action; finally looking at how it all turns out and decide on whether any changes need to be made.


Identifying the Problem: This might sound like a blatantly obvious first step, but identifying the problem isn’t always as simple as it sounds. You must ensure that you correctly identify the root of the problem and not just another symptom of a deeper underlying issue, otherwise any attempts at solving it will be inefficient or even useless. Once the problem has been identified, it is important to fully define the problem so that it can be solved.


Defining Obstacles and Forming a Strategy: The next step is to make yourself/your team aware of any issues that may arise, allowing you to then develop a strategy to solve the problem. Any approach will ultimately depend upon the situation (the problem and obstacles) and any unique preferences.


Examining All Options and Organising Information: Before making any decisions, it is best to organise all of the information at your disposal. What do and don’t you know about the problem and any obstacles?  The more information you can collect, the more prepared you will be to form an accurate solution.


Acting and Allocating Resources: There is always a trade-off between how much time/resources are spent on collecting information and putting a plan into action, so before you start trying to solve a problem, you need to determine how high priority it is. It is of course worth allocating more resources to solving higher priority problems.


Looking at the Results and Monitoring Progress: Effective problem-solvers will monitor a proposed solution’s progress and if it isn’t proving efficient in reaching their goal, they may re-evaluate their approach and look for another strategy. Once a final solution has been reached, evaluating the results can help you to decide whether the same course of action should be taken if the problem arises again in the future.


Can you tell us the answer?

“How many pumpkins can you fit in a bus?”

 Hint: Make assumptions for the size of the bus and pumpkins. If you need another tip, comment below.