I recently attended a Chief Outsiders conference where a daylong session was essentially devoted to asking the right questions and listening. It is amazing what we miss when we skip this important trait. It reminded me why Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy by Christopher Phillips is on my list of important books. It is a book about asking questions. I like questions — and generally think that C level executives often do not ask enough of them. We are so intent on demonstrating our expertise and leadership we miss the most important step in solving a problem! That’s clearly defining the problem in the first place. Moreover, asking questions is essential for any executive who wants effective problem solving. Unless you are a CEO that likes to waste time chasing rabbits through the weeds, here are three ways to avoid those rascally rabbits.
1. Are We Talking About the Same Thing? Rephrase the Problem.
In a recent post on one of the marketing discussion forums, someone asked what would be the first thing a CMO should do “to save a flailing company.” By the time I saw the post, there was already a long thread of nearly two dozen suggestions. No one had asked a single question.
Right off, I wanted to know if flailing was a typo. Was it actually supposed to be failing company? Typos are easy enough to miss; I usually catch my worst typos only after publishing a post. Of course, the poster probably did intend flailing — so I wanted to know what she meant by a flailing company. I know what I think a flailing company might be — but that does not mean that we are talking about the same thing. We see this all too frequently: people debating a question or a solution to a problem only to find out that they were actually talking about different things. Unfortunately, by the time we realize it we have wasted a lot of time chasing rabbits.
A problem or a question should generate more questions — and should generate enough questions for us to rephrase our problem so that we are sure we are all talking about the same thing and trying to solve the same problem.
2. Expose and Challenge Assumptions.
No matter how simple a problem may seem, it probably carries with it a long list of assumptions. In addition, given my experience, I realize that sometimes those assumptions may be accurate. There is that maxim, “You know what happens when you assume.” When assumptions are inaccurate, our understanding of the problem is lacking and ineffective. That is why Phillips in his book encourages his readers to ask questions that examine their assumptions rationally.
In order to expose and challenge assumptions we need to ask the questions that make those assumptions explicit. This takes a bit of time, but time spent on the front end keeps us from wasting time chasing those rabbits later. Write a list and identify as many assumptions as you can. “All flailing companies are the same.” “Organizations always have problems with communication — it’s the nature of the beast.” “We don’t have the resources.” “That isn’t the way we do things around here.” “Our people will resist any change.” “Lack of trust! That’s the problem!”
Question each assumption for validity. Essentially, you need to learn how to think like a philosopher! You may be surprised by how many assumptions are self-imposed and inaccurate — and with a few good questions, you can safely drop them.
3. It has Layers
In last year’s quirky but enjoyable film Seven Psychopaths, the psychopath played by Christopher Walken tries to find something positive to say to one of the other psychopaths about the final shootout scene that he wants to incorporate into the movie script that are working on: “I like it. It has layers,” says Walken. Problems have layers too.
A good question to ask is whether the problem you are defining and trying to solve is a small piece of a greater problem. In the same way that we can define and clarify a problem “laterally” by questions to insure that we are talking about the same problem and to challenge assumptions, we can ask questions to do identify “altitudes” or layers. Is the problem really a symptom of a bigger problem? Alternatively, is the problem really composed of several smaller problems? Deconstructing a problem into many smaller problems — each of them more specific than the original — can provide greater insight into the problem and present more options for effective solutions.
Solving problems or chasing rabbits? Einstein supposedly said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. This quote illustrates an important point: before jumping into answering questions and solving problems, we need to ask more questions. We need to invest time and effort to improve our understanding of the question or the problem before we start solving.