Ask the right questions: 4 steps to solve complex problems


Think of the last time you had to solve a difficult problem. From choosing the right career path to the relatively simple task of deciding where to eat with a group of friends, how do you make sure you have all the information you need to come to the right decision? And how do you make sense of that ‘data’?

Complex problem solving is the ability to examine large sets of information or a difficult situation and show accuracy and sound judgement in choosing a response. Understanding what is and isn’t important through objective critical thinking, it's a skill that will help you make better decisions at work and in your personal life.

Often there's no one correct answer – it all depends on what it is you're trying to do and what factors you need to take into account. Understanding the issue, knowing any limits and going through a logical process can help you tackle complex problems, and come to the best possible solution.

1.  Define: What IS my problem?

The first step is to make sure you know what the problem actually is that you're trying to solve. This starts with asking questions to frame the situation:

  • Who has set you the task?
  • Are they the only person involved in defining that problem, or are there other people’s perspectives to consider?
  • Have they correctly identified the issue, or is there something else going on?
  • What steps will I need to take to break this down to get to the solution?

2.  Refine - Can I be more specific?

Gathering different people's ideas will help you understand the challenges involved and the background around the issue. Are there common themes? Or have you been given conflicting information? Be open to hearing from a variety of perspectives. If you need clarification, don't be afraid to follow up on your conversations to pinpoint the exact problem to be addressed.

  • Restrictions – Are there any limits I need to be aware of? Is there a hard deadline? What budget do I have to work with? Are there any legal issues to consider? Are there any other things that might affect the process?
  • Preferences – Is there already a preferred approach or choice of solution? Am I being completely objective or do I need to look at my own bias? Knowing if there's an established or favoured way of doing things is important – even if you want to challenge it.

3. Dig deeper - What don't I know?

What other sources of data do I have access to that will help inform my problem? Are there still questions that need to be answered before I can come to a solution? Are there any wider issues I need to be aware of? Take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

4. Interpreting information - What does that all mean?

Now you have that data, how do you make sense of the possible solutions? Solving complex problems involves being able to dissect information and identify the useful content which can help solve problems and create solutions. This can applied in the workplace across client or team matters as well as in your personal life.

  • What have I learned from the data?
  • What is most important?
  • What conclusions can be drawn?
  • Which solution best meets the needs identified in the brief?
  • Which is the best course of action?

Asking the right questions, analysing data and interpreting those results helps us solve complex problems every day for our clients at EY.  As with many skills it's something that gets better with practice. Sudoku, cryptic crosswords and logic problems can all help practice your skills, while getting a good night’s sleep helps your brain to reset and process information more effectively.

We’re already starting to see bots that can input and process large volumes of data. As artificial intelligence (AI) takes care of more basic tasks, the ability to solve more complex, nuanced problems will become more important than ever. It's a key skill in today’s world of work, and will be increasingly important in the workplace of the future.