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Career Tips

How do you solve a problem?

by Brought to you by ACS Careers
July 5, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 27


Illustration of a checklist.
Credit: Shutterstock
Do you dive right in, or do you delegate?

Imagine this scenario: It’s the day of a big event, and the organizers have spent months planning for it. Everything should be perfect. But as they walk into the venue, they discover that things are not quite as expected. The paperwork is in disarray, some chairs are misplaced, and the projector and table for the speaker’s laptop is different from what was requested.

The organizers call the venue contact person and start listing the problems. When finished, they go to the audiovisual technician and explain what needs to be changed. Eventually, the venue manager arrives to execute all the requests.

Or perhaps a different scenario unfolds: The organizers walk into the venue and discover that things are not quite as expected. They quickly rearrange the papers and chairs as they wanted them. They examine the audiovisual setup and decide it will work just fine. Pretty soon, everything is in order, and when the venue contact person arrives for the pre-event check, things are ready to go.

Which approach was better? In both scenarios, the organizers got the room ready in time for the event, but in one scenario, they took a big-picture view and delegated, while in the other scenario, they focused on the details and did what needed to be done.

Whenever you are confronted with a problem, you can either take a step back and call in additional resources, or you can dive in yourself and start solving the problem. When deciding which way to go, you should consider the following factors:

The problem: Is the problem you see really the problem that needs to be solved, or is there a deeper issue? Who are the stakeholders?

Skills: Do you know how to do what needs to be done? And if not, can you learn the skills in time?

Resources: Do you have enough starting material or other supplies?

Time: Is this issue going to get better or worse if you do nothing?

Authority: How much of the problem falls within your jurisdiction?

Parameters: What can you change, and what can’t you change?

Priorities: What is most important, and what doesn’t matter as much?

People: Who is affected? Who caused it, and who should be part of the solution?

Using all this information, identify the options and then evaluate which is the best solution. It might even be a combination of options—a short-term solution that will get you through right now, then longer-term changes to prevent a recurrence.

If the solution is obvious, and you know you can get it done with the resources available, you probably want to dive in and take care of it. If the situation is time sensitive, you’ll likely want to solve the problem, then inform the stakeholders.

If it’s a more complex problem, you may want to enlist reinforcements to help identify possible solutions and then decide how to proceed. The best solution will often require balancing a number of competing factors, and a diversity of opinions can help.

And if your first major problem-solving attempt does not go as well as you hoped, don’t despair. You’ll get better over the course of your career, if only because you will get plenty of practice.

Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


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