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ATD Blog

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 a bestselling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. His newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at

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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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