When it comes down to it, problem solving is the foundation of all business. There is a problem or a need, and you provide a product or service that solves or fulfills it. And when it comes to building your business, it is basically a never ending string of problem-solution troubleshooting. How to structure your business, source funding, manage operations and foster growth: all of these things tie back to problem solving, which is why having solid problem-solving skills is a must for all business owners.

Problem solving is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process or act of finding a solution to a problem”. We engage in this process every day of our lives, from basic problem solving like deciding what to wear in the morning or what to eat for lunch to more complex scenarios like figuring out a marketing strategy or how to lower operating costs. It’s a critical function that not only gets us through life, but can also determine our success – or failure – at our chosen endeavors.

When we talk about problem-solving skills as it relates to business, we’re essentially discussing how we identify, assess and resolve problems, whether they are sudden, unexpected crises or day-to-day business challenges. The skills we employ to problem solve include analysis, research, creativity and decision making, and depending on the situation at hand, risk management and communication.

But skill alone won’t optimize your outcomes if you don’t apply any process to how you approach problems. Although the method does not have to be rigid, there is a best practice when it comes to problem solving. It is called the problem-solving cycle and it includes the following steps:

  • Identifying the problem
  • Defining it
  • Developing a strategy
  • Organizing information and allocating resources
  • Progress monitoring
  • Outcome evaluation

A lot of this may seem obvious, but when we’re faced with a big problem, many of us get flustered, frustrated, and end up in a try-fail loop rather than a problem-solution cycle. Or we get off on the wrong foot entirely by not digging deep enough into the true source of the problem. Taking a step back and applying the problem-solution technique allows us to think through the problem in a logical manner. Of course, not every problem will necessarily require all of the above steps, but when it comes to more complicated situations or long-term planning to overcome barriers to your business success, this structure can be incredibly useful.

In addition to developing a solid problem-solving strategy, there are a number of things you can do to improve your problem-solving skills.

  • Build Your Knowledge Base: When you know more, you have more information to work with when problems arise. Learn everything you can about your business, competitors, customers, and the market in general. The more knowledge you have, the better your problem-solving skills will be, not to mention all of the other advantages to your business life.
  • Ask The Right Questions: Sometimes instead of asking why, you have to ask how. Asking solution-oriented questions can be a very effective approach to problem solving because rather than asking why something is happening, especially if there’s no clear cut answer, you can go straight to formulating solutions. “Why are sales down?” becomes “What can I do to increase sales?” and “Why do I never reach my fitness goals?” becomes “How can I change my schedule to make sure I make it to the gym three times a week?”
  • Make A List: Sometimes the best way to tackle a problem is to simply list out as many solutions as you can think of. Whether you brainstorm solo or in a group, write down every idea no matter how crazy it might seem. Get creative. The more solutions you have, the more opportunities you have for coming up with the right answer.
  • Use Your Subconscious Mind: Haveyou ever noticed how a solution to a problem you have seems to come out of nowhere when you’re not even thinking about it? That’s the work of your subconscious mind. Sometimes we need to step away from a problem we’re facing and let our subconscious do the heavy lifting. This article offers some practical ways to access your subconscious for better problem solving.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Make sure you’re regularly flexing your problem-solving muscles. Whether it’s helping other team members, working through theoretical problems or regularly playing problem-solving games (think anything from video games to chess), there are a number of ways you can develop your strategic thinking with practice.