Problem solving: a must-have skill

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Problem solving is one of the competences highlighted by the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs report. While skills gaps continue to be high, as in-demand skills across jobs change in the next five years, the report flagged up a number of skills that employees need to have to make them as employable as possible – and problem solving is one of them.

‘Problem solving is a logical process, requiring attention to detail and the ability to put everything back together better than it was before,’ says Jim Hinchliffe, ACCA commercial manager for Kaplan Financial. ‘Accountants may not be born with these skills but they will learn them subliminally by way of the subjects they are taught and the experience gained in the workplace.’ 

Employers often prioritise problem-solving in today’s rapidly shifting global economy, so developing these skills will set you apart from your colleagues and turn you into a vital resource for developing the finance function. It’s something that is crucial right from the start of your career because when you get promoted you will have to deal with less defined, more complex problems.

Be honest

Showing that you are a great problem solver can be tricky and it’s one of the most common interview questions. It can be tempting to think up a situation to make yourself sound like a problem solving guru like Albert Einstein (who, incidentally, once said: ’It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer’)… but it’s better to be honest. Even small – and what you may consider to be inconsequential – problems in either your academic, professional or personal life can highlight to potential employees that you are patient, cool-headed and creative – all the attributes that make someone a good problem solver.

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There isn’t a single role within accountancy that would not benefit from honing your problem-solving skills:

  • If you’re conducting an audit, you will have to find out why figures that should balance out don’t.
  • If you’re working in forensic accountancy it’s as much about solving a crime as a problem.
  • In the world of tax it will help you deal with complex numerical conundrums to find the right solutions for your clients.

When it comes to financial planning and advice, excellent problem solving skills will help you be flexible and creative to ensure each client – with individual needs – can manage and grow their money. 

Problem solving made easy...

  1. Identify and define the problem. State the problem clearly and be specific about the timing, circumstance or behaviour that make it a problem.
  2. Think of possible solutions. Make a note of anything you think of and don’t be overwhelmed if it’s a long list. In fact, the longer the better and it will get your creative juices flowing and you might just find that solution 14 is the perfect answer.
  3. Eliminate non-workable solutions. Once you’ve got your list, go through the options. Some simply won’t work and now’s the time to ditch them. Order the remaining solutions in order of preference.
  4. Make a decision. Decide on a solution and specify how it will be implemented, by whom and when.
  5. Implement the solution.
  6. Evaluate the outcome. Evaluate how effective the solution was to help you decide whether the existing plan needs to be revised, or whether a new plan is needed to better address the problem (in which case, go back to step two and repeat the process).
  7. Don’t worry if it didn’t work. Everything is a learning curve and some of the biggest lessons can be learned when things don’t go according to plan.

This article was first published in Student Accountant in June 2022

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