Zen is you – Be.

Solve Problems by Asking, not Telling

Posted in ideas, objectives by dave225 on January 15, 2010

“What you need to do is …”

Here’s my problem of the day with Twitter:  looking at most tweets, I see people proposing (to whom, I’m not exactly sure) solutions to the world’s problems.  Reducing the problems to easily-solved contests that are met by spouting platitudes like, “No more bonuses for Wall St. until …” or “Provide health coverage just like they do in (whatever country)” .

So why haven’t the decision makers just looked to Twitter to fix things?  The answers are there, and they’re so simple!  Well, for the same reason they haven’t solved the problems in the first place – everyone has an answer.  Who has an earnest question? (I ask rhetorically. J)

Instead of presuming to know enough to spout off a solution, what if people started asking questions?  “Why do we need Wall St bonuses?  What would happen if the financial community cleaned house and paid salaries competitive with other industries?”   At the least, the people asking the questions might learn more about a subject (if they care to listen to the response.) But possibly, the people responsible for solving the problem may think of the problem in a new way – particularly if a naïve question demands that they defend something that they take for granted.

All this musing led me to the real point.  It’s easy to criticize popular media for not asking enough questions.  But is there a problem-solving methodology buried in this premise?  Beyond the simple “ask ‘Why’ three times” idea , “what if” scenarios, Pareto analysis, Ishikawa, Decision Trees, etc…  is there a more formal methodology and workflow that uses questions to solve problems?  Something that ties all of those methods together, but is more formal than using “expert judgement” to determine which method to use at various stages.  E.g. ‘Use X method to obtain output in the form of ______, which is used as input into Y method.’

What if I started to formulate one?  No – wrong question… Where can I find such a thing?  Why doesn’t exist if it doesn’t?  How would I go about documenting and testing it?


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3 Responses

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  1. Andy Havens said, on January 15, 2010 at 6:31 am

    Questions are at the heart of the “creative brief,” which is a simple (seeming) tool that many marketing folks use. It’s especially popular with agencies when starting a project for clients. Why? Because almost all marketing work is “service” work. You don’t ever do marketing for its own sake. Nobody ever said, “Let’s do an ad because that’s what we like to do.” Or “How about we come up with a brand with no product.”

    Because marketing serves, the best marketing questions. Because service without understanding is unhelpful. Imagine going into a restaurant and having the waitress tell you what you want. “You’re hungry, I know. You came in here. So you must want food. Right now, we have lots of extra chicken. I’m going to get you some chicken.” Insane. But that’s how many people approach much work. It just seems obviously wrong in a service situation.

    The basic creative brief — and you can get much fancier than this — asks

    1. Who is your audience?
    2. What action(s) do you seek to encourage?
    3. What thinking?
    4. What are the boundaries (time, money, effort, law, tone)?
    5. What are the criteria of success and who are the judges?

    That’s really more than five questions, of course. Or it’s five questions with multiple answers. And that’s OK. But if you don’t know the answers to at least those, your marketing can go really awry. The form I use breaks things down into about 12-15 questions, depending on the type of project. But it’s really those questions.

    Good marketing people work off of others’ goals. That makes questions a very important part of our work.

  2. dave225 said, on January 15, 2010 at 7:14 am

    Great analogies, Andy. “I’ve got an awesome set of tools, what can I build fer ya?”

    So what are the questions for solving energy independence? And what pattern exists between those questions and the questions for figuring out my dog’s allergies?

  3. Kris Hardy said, on February 11, 2010 at 9:53 pm


    Your post hit right on the head of something I’ve dealt with for my entire life.

    I spent the first 8 years of my career as a research scientist for Sandia National Labs and the Air Force Research Lab. There are good points about that and bad points about that experience… The good is that I was always thinking 10-30 years down the road with everything I was working on. The down side is that everything was so far out there that I couldn’t really go to my customers and ask “what can I build for you?”

    Since it was a government research laboratory, my “customers” were the visionaries, not the actual end users. And I’m talking about the Einstein, Hawkins, Curie type of visionaries. (As opposed to the Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, product invention type of visionaries). Research papers were more valuable to them than inventions.

    Changing my mindset to be be shorter-term and product-oriented has been challenging. I occasionally (okay, regularly) find myself going in obscure tangents that are interesting to me or have long-term benefits, but have no immediate customers.

    Personally, I haven’t yet found the perfect questions to bridge the two: joining the theoretical and strategic “big” questions to the short-term practical and tactical questions.

    But, here’s where I have gotten:

    1) What do I know?
    2) What do I not know?
    3) What do I not know that I do not know?

    Question 1 is just building a catalog of knowledge so you know what you don’t need to research.

    Question 2 is where the work starts, and you fill those gaps in knowledge.

    As you fill in the gaps, the answer to Question 3 changes radically and continuously. For each thing you learn, there will be at least 10 new things that you don’t know and had no idea that you should look into.

    Question 3 is, in my opinion, where all true breakthroughs occur.

    Applying these directly to energy independence or dog’s allergies probably isn’t feasible, but I think these 3 questions are interesting meta-questions that form the research & learning process.

    Now my question to myself: Is it at all relevant? 😉

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