Five Ways to Enhance Your Problem Detection Skills

How good are you at noticing problems, risks and hazards in your life and work? Are you able to spot when you need to engage in some evasive action to prevent a possible catastrophe at work? Are you able to see when events might pan out in a bad way rather than a good one? Are you aware that you can enhance your problem detection skills?

Knowing which way to look

Although problems sometimes appear one at a time, you can also find yourself in a situation where multiple problems arise at once, coming from all angles and stretching your mental resources to the max.

The study was done in the context of driving but has broad relevance to how we assess problems in any ongoing situations. This latest piece of evidence suggests that when we are driving, and we notice a hazard in the road ahead, then we are then less likely to see other hazards which appear at the same time, especially if one danger is more attention-grabbing than the other. In one specific example, the researchers showed that if someone had detected a hazard involving a flashy red sports car, they were then subsequently less likely to notice a hazard involving a darkly dressed person. This phenomenon, which is known as a subsequent search miss (SSM), is obviously critical when understanding why car accidents can happen.

problemsHowever, how often have you experienced a situation where you’ve been all hands on deck trying to fire-save on an ongoing issue or problem at work only to realise later on, once the immediate problem has passed, that you have missed several other issues which have then got out of hand. In other words, you were so busy dealing with a primary concern, that you became blinkered to other issues, unwittingly letting them slip by, potentially with severe consequences.

Lapses in attention

Such problems arise because of the way your brain’s selective attention system works. The critical word here is selective. It selects what it thinks is important, discarding or downplaying less salient information. This makes sense as it ensures that all your mental resources are focused towards trying to solve the most pressing issue at hand, helping you come to a solution more quickly and efficiently. However, the disadvantage is that you stop paying attention to the bigger picture, to what else is going on that you might also need to pay attention to. So it would be best if you did less “selecting” and more “dividing”, making sure that your attentional radar, although focusing on the task at hand, is also scanning the field for other warning signals.

Here are five ways to enhance your problem detection skills:

  • Local vs global. There is a phrase – can’t see the wood for the trees. Moreover, it applies to the brain too. Sometimes your brain is focused on “local” small scale information, the fine print, but at other times it is focused on “global” large scale information, the big picture. Make sure you are engaging both perspectives ensures you don’t miss out on what’s important even when you are in the thick of it.
  • Don’t get stuck in the flow. Usually, mental flow is a good thing. It helps you to be more productive in your work. But it also means that you have an uncanny ability to block out what else is going on around you. This can mean that you are more likely to miss out on important background signals that you should really be paying attention to.
  • Time out perspective. It’s important to remember that however severe a problem, you always need to take a moment to regain perspective and check in with what else is going on to make sure you’re not just needlessly moving from one problem to the next.
  • High salience vs low salience. Salience is how much something stands out and grabs your attention. However, more salience doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger problem. It just means a problem that will grab your attention better. Low salience problems, can also be deadly to an organization but they are much more difficult to spot, especially if they are being crowded out by “look at me” style problems. Making sure you are deliberately tuned into low salience problems, means that you will be better at noticing them as they creep up quietly in the background. 
  • Be aware of your cognitive flaws. The subsequent search miss effect is one of many cognitive flaws which humans are naturally susceptible to. They are built into the way the brain works, and although they are sometimes difficult to avoid, merely being aware that they exist can be a big step in helping you overcome them.

Check out more resources in our Learning Hub to find out more about how brains work and how they are critical to organisational development.

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