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Skills for Success: Problem Solving

The Government of Canada’s Skills for Success model defines problem solving as “your ability to identify, analyze, propose solutions, and make decisions.” This skill helps you to address issues, monitor success, and learn from the experience.


It’s a fact of life that things do not always go our way. Issues will come up at work, in our relationships, in our finances, and in our health. A well-honed problem-solving ability is like the Swiss Army knife—a tool that helps you deal with all kinds of problems as they arise.

Problem solving is one of the 9 skills identified in the Government of Canada’s Skills for Success model. Launched in 2021, this model updates the original Essential Skills framework to reflect changes in the Canadian labour market and the modern workplace.

Whether you need to choose between different ways to approach a problem, identify priorities, figure out how to meet goals and deadlines, or adapt to an unexpected change, this skill will help you take the challenge in stride.

What does problem solving include?

The Skills for Success model divides problem solving into 6 components:

  • Identify the issue. Is it familiar or new, simple, or complex? What goals and objectives do you need to achieve?
  • Gather information. What are the facts? How have similar problems been solved in the past? Are there pre-existing opinions that stand in the way of solving the problem?
  • Analyze the issue. Break the question down into smaller parts. Look for patterns. Identify possible links of cause and effect.
  • Identify different possible actions you could take. What are your goals? Think up short and long-term ways to meet them.
  • Address the issue. Choose the best course of action and apply it to solve the problem. Adjust the problem-solving process as you go—it’s the result that counts.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the solution or decision. What have you learned from the process and the result? Ask others for feedback, and identify best practices and lessons learned from the experience.

Measuring problem-solving skills

Your proficiency level is your ability to solve problems in different situations. As you develop your problem-solving skills, you will be able to:

  • Solve problems that are more unfamiliar, with limited or uncertain information and higher stakes.
  • Find and analyze information more easily, select a course of action, and judge how well a solution worked.

The Skills for Success model defines 3 levels of problem-solving skills: entry, intermediate, and advanced. Here are some examples of the types of problem you might solve at each level:

  • Entry level. A coworker has accidentally deleted an important file and needs to retrieve it. You figure out how to restore the file from the computer’s recycle bin.
  • Intermediate level. There is a delay in receiving a crucial component for an urgent project. To meet the deadline, you need to identify the reason for the delay, decide whether to get the part elsewhere, and find a different vendor.
  • Advanced level. Your company’s customer database has been hacked. You are responsible for overseeing the response. You must investigate and resolve the breach, manage priorities and resources, and determine how to minimize the financial and legal fallout.

Problem-solving skills in action

Here are some examples of how people in different occupations apply their problem-solving skills:

  • Accountants analyze information and solve problems to help people and businesses meet financial challenges.
  • Computer programmers solve problems by developing or updating software and code to accomplish specific tasks.
  • Police officers gather information and use their judgment to respond to problems in the community, sometimes in high-stakes situations.

Problem-solving strategies

When you are faced with a problem or decision, keep these strategies in mind:

  • Make sure you’re tackling the right problem. Take time to define the problem so you can address its root cause, not just its symptoms.
  • Reverse engineer a solution. Picture the outcome you want and work backwards to figure out the steps you need to get there.
  • Role play to shift your viewpoint. Think of someone whose judgment you admire and ask yourself how that person would handle the issue.
  • Adopt a beginner’s mindset. Sometimes, habits and patterns in our thinking limit the range of solutions we can see. What happens if you set aside your past experiences and opinions to look at a problem with fresh eyes?
  • Take other perspectives into account. Who else might be affected by the problem or by different possible solutions? Consider what it means for others and invite their input.

Helpful resources

Online learning courses

Improve your core skills at home by taking online courses. Online learning offers courses covering a wide range of topics, and some platforms offer free courses or free trials. Find out what your options are by searching these online learning sites for the skills you want to build:

Because problem solving is a complex skill, it can be trickier to assess and learn than the more traditional skills. But there are many resources that can help:

Explore the Skills for Success

Although particular skills may be more important in some jobs than others, all 9 skills in the Skills for Success model are needed for most occupations. These skills are not just about work—they come into play throughout our lives, forming a foundation for other technical and life skills, knowledge, and relationships.

Learn about the other skills for success:

Skills for Success: Communication (1:09)

Communication skills are important for developing good working relationships with co-workers and clients, including those from different backgrounds and cultures. Strong communication skills help you work effectively in a team. They help you understand a variety of viewpoints. They help you gather and share information to solve problems—whether at work or in your daily life.

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