How to become a better problem solver

There are many skills and qualities that will help you in the process of solving social problems. The most important quality is to be able to view problems as opportunities.

We believe the single most important skill you can learn is
Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking is a way to view the world around us, a way to see the world as it is, that is as a complex dynamic and adaptive system of feedback loops.

General tips for how to become a better problem solver

  • Be curious. Understand more, seek insight, and ask why.
  • Learn about the scientific method and apply it to your work.
  • Seek more knowledge.
  • Be rational, flexible and practical.
  • Understand that systems and problems change over time. All solutions must keep up with the change.
  • Learn to read and understand legislative language.
  • Learn about project management and business management.
  • Learn about tools and strategies for advanced analysis and problem solving.
  • Learn all there is about complex problem solving and related theories/methods.
  • Be analytic but stay creative.
  • Be patient and persistent. Methodical and systematic.
  • Team up with other people that can complement your weaknesses or find advisors.
  • Learn to break out of restrictive mind-sets and give full, serious consideration to alternative solutions.
  • Welcome critique. Don't take things personal. Learn from critique and move on.
  • Remove all prejudice and bias. Accept that all your assumptions may be wrong.
  • Learn how to deal with the compulsions of the human mind that, by defeating objective analysis, close the mind to alternatives.
  • Practice by spending more time and solving more problems.
  • Be critical. Don't take anything for granted.
  • Be compassionate. We are all part of the same system. Stop with blame games. We are all responsible one way or another.
  • Learn from mistakes.
  • Have courage. Pointing out systemic problems and their solutions are not always popular.
  • Train yourself in both convergent and divergent thinking.
  • Understand that social problems are complex. You can only hope to partially understand its complexity. This means that you will have to apply a Probe, Sense and Respond strategy.
  • Find motivation.
  • Develop management skills.
  • Improve your skills as a team member.
  • Constantly improve yourself. Do not be afraid to change.
  • Continuously challenge theories of why things are the way they are.
  • Be sensitive to the needs of people and society.
  • Don't be afraid to ask.
  • Respect and desire to understand the viewpoints of others.
  • Respect cultural diversity.
  • Learn the language of policy planning.
  • Reject linear cause-and-effect thinking.
  • Have confidence in your ability to learn.
  • Develop quantitative analytic skills.
  • Open your mind. Be open to new ideas and anticipate the unexpected.
  • Be both a problem seeker and a problem preventer.
  • Focus on the goal and not on individual solutions. Don't be afraid to try new directions.
  • Think positive. A problem is an opportunity to improve something.
  • Think of problems as exciting challenges and opportunities you can learn from.
  • Learn to incorporate political factors into analysis.
  • Stay committed and don't give up. You can solve almost any problem.
  • Improve your creativity.
  • Learn to cope with uncertainty in a policy context by being flexible and toleratant.
  • Be childish, playful with a vivid imagination. Be open-minded.
  • Be flexible and change strategies as you go.
  • Be a team player. Collaborate and help others.
  • Don't care what others are saying, take chances.
  • Learn to write with clarity and precision.
  • Learn to use supporting documentation such as references, maps, charts, graphs effectively.
  • Learn to work under time constraints.
  • Understand that data alone can be misleading. Data should support our analysis of Cause and effect. Understanding the causes of the problem is the key to solving a problem.
  • Learn how to obtain policy-relevant data, through efficient search techniques and persistence.
  • Practice the sifting and synthesizing of mountains of seemingly irrelevant reports and memoranda.
  • Develop skills for qualitative analysis.

Related to social innovation and capacity development

  • Understand how public and non-profit institutions work.
  • Learn about politics and lobbying.

Plan to become an even better problem solver

  • Plan to develop your reading, writing and editing skills.
  • Plan to improve your communication and speaking skills.
  • Plan to learn how to learn. Improve self-awareness and self-assessment skills.
  • Plan to get organized. Less noise and mess in your life makes for better thinking.
  • Plan to improve your life. Less worries means more time for positive thinking.
  • Plan to develop your self-confidence.
  • Plan to improve your surroundings. If you are uncomfortable you are less likely to focus.
  • Plan to learn about psychology, systems thinking, sociology, social innovation, economy, philosophy, politics and other relevant disciplines.

Suggested reading

Introduction to general problem solving

Habits, personal development and attitude


  • Democratic Dialogue – A Handbook for Practitioners by Bettye Pruitt and Philip Thomas (Pdf)
  • Complexity Demystified - a Guide for Practitioners, by Patrick Beautement and Christine Broenner. (Amazon)
  • Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, by John Miller and Scott Page (Amazon)

Social innovation and social change

Policy analysis and design

  • Making Policy - A Guide to the Federal Government's Policy Process, by Glen Milne (Amazon)

Systems Thinking

System Dynamics and simulation

Advanced topics

Critical thinking

Issue type


Issue title

Development issues