Ask the Right Questions the Right Way

Adapted from “Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems” by Stephen Shapiro (March 2020, Copyright 2020, Stephen Shapiro).

During these difficult times, finding solutions to your difficult problems is critical.

The key to finding better solutions is to ask better questions. In the corporate world, it is all too common for questions to be posed in overly broad and abstract ways, like the default questions associated with suggestion boxes:

  • “What ideas do you have for improving the business?”
  • “What new products should we create?”
  • “How can we increase revenues?”
  • “How can we improve productivity?”
  • “What new technologies should we invest in?”

These questions are the business equivalents of trying to solve world hunger: too broad and ineffectual. Broad questions almost certainly will produce broad, irrelevant, or impractical solutions.

We saw this play out with the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion back in 2010, when concerned citizens and scientists were asked, “How can we stop the flow of oil?” Although 123,000 suggestions were received, none actually solved the problem. Overly abstract questions invite a large number of low-quality solutions.

Our pull toward this ambiguity is not surprising. For decades, we have been told to “think outside the box” as shorthand for innovation. But this doesn’t work. The brain does not like abstraction. If you give people blank sheets of paper, they will struggle to develop new ideas. And the ideas they do conceive will be the typical, obvious ones.

On the other hand, asking questions that are too specific results in ineffective thinking. Constricting boundaries too tightly can result in inappropriate solutions, much the same way that asking questions that are too broad can. When we frame issues too narrowly, they are either solutions masquerading as questions or questions that are so specific and narrowly defined that they limit the potential range of places where we will even consider looking for solutions.

A great example of this comes from another oil spill: the Exxon Valdez tanker crash in 1989. For nearly 20 years, cleanup crews in Alaska tried to remove the 10.8 million gallons of oil that spilled into the icy waters of Prince William Sound. The cleanup process was hampered because as the oil-water mixture was extracted from the sound, it seems to freeze. Oil experts were unsuccessful in solving the problem of “How can we prevent an oil-water mixture from freezing?” The question implied that the issue was related to oil, water, and temperature. This narrow definition limited the solutions they considered.

Finally, in 2007, the team at InnoCentive (a popular crowdsourcing platform) recognized that the real problem was not related to oil or freezing. It was, in fact, a common fluid-dynamics issue called “viscous shear.” This is a phenomenon in which the molecules of dense liquids seize when moved quickly. When the oil-freezing challenge was reframed to “How can we prevent viscous shear in a dense liquid?” the problem was solved in six weeks. The solution was provided by someone who once worked in the construction industry. He recognized that wet, dense cement was prone to a similar clogging issue when poured through chutes. He figured that if vibrations could keep cement from hardening, then a similar concept could be adapted to keep the oil in the tanks from seizing. His solution worked, solving a two-decade-old problem, because the new question enabled him to reveal a previously invisible solution.

The perfectly crafted question is one that is correctly balanced between concrete and abstract, that will reveal a range of new and different solutions. The reality is that you don’t want to think outside the box—you want to find a better box, a well-framed challenge that helps propel the organization forward.

Unfortunately, asking better questions is not a natural act for most of us. Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” The reality is that most people spend 60 minutes either solving problems that are unimportant and poorly defined or waiting for an epiphany.

We see this conundrum play out time and time again when misguided leaders tell their employees, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.” This is terrible advice. We don’t need more low-value ideas; we need better, meatier, and more important problems that can be reframed. Only then should we look for solutions.

For decades, I’ve witnessed organizations fail miserably at problem-solving, often because they don’t see what they need to see and so fail to define the right problems and ask the right questions. Their failure to effectively define problems leads to irrelevant solutions. We can’t fix what we can’t see. What we see is brought into focus (or distorted) by the lenses we wear. These lenses are the mental filters that stand between our business problems and our best thinking about how to solve them.

How do we identify the lenses we’re wearing right now? How do we try on better lenses? How do we learn to create these perfect questions?

By examining the questions we’re asking.

A fortune cookie I once received said, “You always have the right answers. They just sometimes answer the wrong questions.” So true: If you ask the wrong question, no matter how hard you try, you will never find the right answer. Regardless of your role, industry, or company size, this book will help you and your organization change your fortune, so that you always focus on questions that will improve efficiency, reduce risk, and drive sustainable long-term success.

Adapted from “Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems” by Stephen Shapiro (March 2020, Copyright 2020, Stephen Shapiro).

Stephen Shapiro started his innovation work more than 20 years ago while leading a 20,000-person innovation practice at consulting firm Accenture. Since then he has written six books on innovation, including “Best Practices Are Stupid,” which was named the best innovation and creativity book of 2011 by 800-CEO-READ (now Porchlight) and was an international #1 business best-seller. His latest book, “Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems,” was released March 2020. His Personality Poker card game has been used in 35 countries to create high-performing innovation teams. Shapiro has presented at conferences in 50-plus countries, and in 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame. His clients include Marriott, 3M, Delta Airlines, P&G, Nike, Capital One, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, and NASA. For more information, visit: www.stephenshapiro.com

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