“Problem solving” comes up a lot in job listings. When it does, it is useful to give some examples of your ability in your cover letter. Indeed, recently I’ve seen this come up as a requirement in job listings.
Like every other qualification, it is useless to simply assert that you have an ability or experience. You have to prove it through referencing your work experience. Here is a template for writing the story about “problem solving.”
- Outline a problem that came up at work
- Explain what disaster could have happened, or was happening, if it were not resolved
- Elucidate what you did to solve the problem
- Describe the good result that happened
- Express the excellent wider consequences
“I’m good at solving problems [an adverb or descriptor from the listing like “quickly” or “innovatively” or “on the fly”], like the time when [something went wrong] at [your recent job]. This meant that [some horrible thing could happen or had happened] which we wanted to avoid. I realized that I should [do this, then that]. That meant that [immediate positive outcome going forward], and [excellent wider consequence such as work continued safely, money or time was saved, the client was very pleased and came back with repeat business.]”
One of the tricks here is to not say “the problem was avoided” as the good result or positive consequence. Just saying something like that doesn’t give as good an impression. It could show you as someone who is problem-focused and stuck in negative language and thinking. It may take a few minutes to find a way to express what did happen, rather than what did not, but it will strengthen you cover letter enormously.
The template also works when the problem you solved was some kind of chronic or ongoing issue, rather than an emergency.
“At [my old job] we had an ongoing issue with [describe the problem]. This meant that every time [something happened] we had [this next thing happen.] This was costly [in some specific way – time, expenses, customer satisfaction, high churn]. I proposed that we [implement or institute this new procedure]. We were able to save [this is a good place to insert a metric – hours, dollars, %’age increase in sales]. It meant that the staff were much happier and able to focus on [some good thing instead of the problem, like delivering client services.]”
This step-by-step method is also a great way to approach this kind of question in an interview, especially if the interviewer asks you to describe your strengths. Have a couple of these stories, that reference the kind of problem that can come up at the prospective job, that you have practiced saying aloud.
The flip side of this skill is planning abilities. Remember the adage, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I like to start any problem-solving description with the phrase, “I find that attention to planning helps avoid many problems, but they still can happen. I’m good at solving problems“…..and so on.
You can learn more about writing cover letters and expressing your skills in terms of a narrative in my book, “Work In Production Part Two: How to write a killer cover letter the UPM will actually want to read.“