Problem-solving is the key skill you see in almost every recruitment advert on LinkedIn, no matter the industry, the discipline or the level of job advertised.

It’s also a key skill that most business profiles contain: I am a problem solver.

But how do people solve problems?

This photograph comes from Eerlijk Amsterdam… a cafe offering coffee, cuisine and coaching… and a very good piece of advice!

Often by not knowing the subject in depth. An overview of the broad strokes gives the non-expert a birds-eye view of the situation that allows them to spot solutions experts cannot.

By shifting the perspective. Placing the problem into a different context or using a metaphor to work through it often results in unexpected insights.

Sleeping on it. How often have you woken up with the answer to a complex question after a good night’s sleep? Your unconscious took your conscious wrestling on board and continued to run the programme while you snored.

By applying a fix that worked somewhere else. A handy answer in one context often provides answers in other contexts.

By breaking the problem down into small steps and looking for the break in the logic. A big problem requires big answers, but small steps can be managed and controlled more effectively, giving an overall solution over time.

What is interesting about the above is that all these problem-solving routines are identical to the core three Creative activities that David Eagleman identifies in his book The Runaway Species with Anthony Brandt. They are:

Bending

Blending

Breaking

And no matter how you look at it, one of these three approaches lies at the heart of all creative activities. Thus, the problem solver at work is often actually a deeply creative person, even if they don’t see themselves that way. The good news is that what this means is that if problem-solving is something you need and feel you are not good at, you can learn it… by learning to be more creative. In fact, this is one of the key everyday uses of creativity. It’s how we got out of the caves and into our houses: how do we stay safe? How do we feed ourselves? We solved those problems and moved onto the next until we sit here, on the internet, wondering how we will keep our jobs when computers and machines threaten to be able to do them all better and faster than us mere humans.

The answer is not to know more facts or to acquire more skills: it’s to be able to do what machines can yet not do: solve problems through the deeply human skill of flipping the text, changing the perspective and combining the unexpected with the everyday.

Do you have a favourite problem-solving technique? How do you overcome roadblocks at work or in your life?