Your technically brilliant employees can crunch numbers and recall complex tax laws with their eyes closed. Yet for some reason, they are not achieving the results you expect. Does this sound familiar?

If it does, it is likely that they are lacking vital soft skills that are essential to perform well in a modern accounting firm. An accountant can be as technically capable as anyone, but if they are unable to communicate effectively with clients, think on their feet, juggle tasks, or come up with a solution to a client’s complex problem, they will not have the same impact as a less technical, but more rounded accountant.

So what soft skills do you need your team to possess?

Problem solving

As accounting practices focus more on advisory services and your clients experience increasingly complex and unique problems, all accountants must be equipped to navigate unexpected challenges.

When something goes wrong, which staff members are the ones who complain and who are the ones that take action? It is the accountants that can think and act on their feet that will be of most benefit to your clients, and who will become indispensable to your firm.

Developing problem-solving amongst your staff

Whenever one of your staff members come across a problem, make it a requirement that they always come to you with a potential solution, never just the problem on its own. Even if their solution is ineffective and you don’t put into action, making this a requirement will give them no choice but to begin thinking critically and on their feet. 

What are the problem solving steps I need to follow?

1. Problem identification 

The first stage of any problem solving process is to identify the problem or problems you might want to solve. Effective problem solving strategies always begin by allowing a group scope to articulate what they believe the problem to be and then coming to some consensus over which problem they approach first. Problem solving activities used at this stage often have a focus on creating frank, open discussion so that potential problems can be brought to the surface.

2. Problem analysis 

Though this step is not a million miles from problem identification, problem analysis deserves to be considered separately. It can often be an overlooked part of the process and is instrumental when it comes to developing effective solutions.

The process of problem analysis means ensuring that the problem you are seeking to solve is the right problem. As part of this stage, you may look deeper and try to find the root cause of a specific problem at a team or organizational level.

Remember that problem solving strategies should not only be focused on putting out fires in the short term but developing long term solutions that deal with the root cause of organizational challenges. 

Whatever your approach, analyzing a problem is crucial in being able to select an appropriate solution and the problem solving skills deployed in this stage are beneficial for the rest of the process and ensuring the solutions you create are fit for purpose.

3. Solution generation

Once your group has nailed down the particulars of the problem you wish to solve, you want to encourage a free flow of ideas connecting to solving that problem. This can take the form of problem solving games that encourage creative thinking or problem solving activities designed to produce working prototypes of possible solutions. 

The key to ensuring the success of this stage of the problem solving process is to encourage quick, creative thinking and create an open space where all ideas are considered. The best solutions can come from unlikely places and by using problem solving techniques that celebrate invention, you might come up with solution gold. 

4. Solution development

No solution is likely to be perfect right out of the gate. It’s important to discuss and develop the solutions your group has come up with over the course of following the previous problem solving steps in order to arrive at the best possible solution. Problem solving games used in this stage involve lots of critical thinking, measuring potential effort and impact, and looking at possible solutions analytically. 

During this stage, you will often ask your team to iterate and improve upon your frontrunning solutions and develop them further. Remember that problem solving strategies always benefit from a multitude of voices and opinions, and not to let ego get involved when it comes to choosing which solutions to develop and take further.

Finding the best solution is the goal of all problem solving workshops and here is the place to ensure that your solution is well thought out, sufficiently robust and fit for purpose. 

5. Decision making 

Nearly there! Once your group has reached consensus and selected a solution that applies to the problem at hand you have some decisions to make. You will want to work on allocating ownership of the project, figure out who will do what, how the success of the solution will be measured and decide the next course of action.

The decision making stage is a part of the problem solving process that can get missed or taken as for granted. Fail to properly allocate roles and plan out how a solution will actually be implemented and it less likely to be successful in solving the problem.

Have clear accountabilities, actions, timeframes, and follow-ups. Make these decisions and set clear next-steps in the problem solving workshop so that everyone is aligned and you can move forward effectively as a group. 

Ensuring that you plan for the roll-out of a solution is one of the most important problem solving steps. Without adequate planning or oversight, it can prove impossible to measure success or iterate further if the problem was not solved. 

6. Solution implementation 

This is what we were waiting for! All problem solving strategies have the end goal of implementing a solution and solving a problem in mind. 

Remember that in order for any solution to be successful, you need to help your group through all of the previous problem solving steps thoughtfully. Only then can you ensure that you are solving the right problem but also that you have developed the correct solution and can then successfully implement and measure the impact of that solution.

Project management and communication skills are key here – your solution may need to adjust when out in the wild or you might discover new challenges along the way.

7. Solution evaluation 

So you and your team developed a great solution to a problem and have a gut feeling its been solved. Work done, right? Wrong. All problem solving strategies benefit from evaluation, consideration, and feedback. You might find that the solution does not work for everyone, might create new problems, or is potentially so successful that you will want to roll it out to larger teams or as part of other initiatives. 

None of that is possible without taking the time to evaluate the success of the solution you developed in your problem solving model and adjust if necessary.

Remember that the problem solving process is often iterative and it can be common to not solve complex issues on the first try. Even when this is the case, you and your team will have generated learning that will be important for future problem solving workshops or in other parts of the organization. 

It’s worth underlining how important record keeping is throughout the problem solving process. If a solution didn’t work, you need to have the data and records to see why that was the case. If you go back to the drawing board, notes from the previous workshop can help save time. Data and insight is invaluable at every stage of the problem solving process and this one is no different.