young professionals

How to Teach Problem Solving to Today’s Young Talent

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Problem solving involves mastering established best practices—proven, repeatable solutions for dealing with recurring problems—so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. It means using repeatable solutions to improvise when addressing problems that are new but similar.

In today’s information environment, where there are so many answers to so many questions available at the tips of their fingers, many young people may look up answers to problems instead of solving them themselves. Without a lot of experience puzzling through problems, it should be no surprise that employees are often puzzled when they encounter unanticipated problems.

Here’s the thing: Nine out of 10 times, you don’t want your youngest, least experienced employees on the front lines to make important decisions on the basis of their own judgment anyway, especially not if they could instead rely on the accumulated experience of the organization.

The reality is that most of the problems new, young employees are likely to encounter in the workplace should not require them to make judgment calls. Most of the problems they encounter are probably regularly recurring problems—even though the young employee in question may have no experience with the particular problem at hand. Chances are the problem has occurred and been solved before, probably many times over. Very few of the problems new employees encounter should be difficult to anticipate.


The key to teaching anybody the basics of problem solving is to first teach them to anticipate the most common, recurring problems and prepare them with ready-made solutions. First, they will become familiar with commonly recurring problems and therefore be more likely to try to help prevent those problems. They’ll also be less often surprised when those problems do arise. Second, they will build up a repertoire of ready-made solutions so there will be a bunch of problems they can solve without having to chase anybody down—they will have the solution right there in their back pocket. Third, from learning and implementing ready-made solutions, they will learn a lot about the anatomy of a good solution. This will put them in a much better position to borrow from ready-made solutions and improvise a better solution when they do encounter the rare unanticipated problem.

Ready-made solutions are just best practices that have been captured, turned into standard operating procedures, and deployed throughout the organization to employees for use as job aids. The most common job aid is a simple checklist:

  • If A happens, you do B.
  • If C happens, you do D.
  • If E happens, you do F.

What kind of job aids do you have at your disposal to help your new young employees master best practices for dealing with recurring problems, so they don’t have to problem-solve anew each time? If you already have such job aids at your disposal, then how can you make better use of them as learning tools?

You need to get everybody using those tools. Use them to help your young employees (and probably those of all ages) to anticipate and prepare for the most common problems, to build up their repertoires of ready-made solutions, and to learn the anatomy of a good solution so they are in a better position to improvise when there is truly a need for a judgment call.

You may have viewed job aids as simply procedural guides, but with this attitude, they can transform into tools to teach problem solving.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is internationally recognized as the leading expert on young people in the workplace and one of the leading experts on leadership and management. Bruce is a best-selling author, an adviser to business leaders all over the world, and a sought-after keynote speaker and management trainer.

Since 1995, Bruce has worked with tens of thousands of leaders and managers in hundreds of organizations ranging from Aetna to Wal-Mart; from the Army to the YMCA.  In recent years, Bruce was named by Management Today as one of the few contemporary figures to stand out as a “management guru” and he was named to the 2009 Thinkers 50 rising star list. On August 13, 2009, Bruce was honored to accept Toastmasters International’s most prestigious honor, the Golden Gavel. This honor is annually presented to a single person who represents excellence in the fields of communication and leadership. Past winners have included Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglar, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters, Art Linkletter, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Walter Cronkite.

Bruce’s most recent book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face: Step-by-step Solutions to (Nearly) All of Your Management Challenges (Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2014) was published in September, 2014.  He is also the author of the best-seller It’s Okay to Be the Boss (HarperCollins, 2007) and the classic Managing Generation X (W.W. Norton, 2000; first published in 1995). Bruce’s other books include Winning the Talent Wars (W.W. Norton, 2001), which received widespread acclaim from Fortune 500 CEOs and business journalists; the best-seller Fast Feedback (HRD Press, 1998); Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: Managing Generation Y (Jossey-Bass, 2009); Managing the Generation Mix (HRD Press, 2006) and It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Jossey-Bass, 2010).   Many of Bruce’s works have been published around the world in foreign editions.

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I have a lot of young people working in our corporation with our customers. Ready made solutions sound like a great way to empower them properly.
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You can definitely teach problem solving. Job aids can help for sure - also skills like asking the right questions and listening for what’s said, not what you want to hear.
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Great read, Bruce. Problem-solving is one of the most valuable skills for employees to have, but it's also one of the most difficult to teach. You might like this infographic that we created to help young professionals learn other important skills: Let me know what you think!
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