Solving Problems or Chasing Rabbits? Ask Questions!

Kevin P. Dincher

Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy” target=”_blank”>Socrates Café:  A Fresh Taste of Philosophy by Christopher Phillips is now on my list of favorite books.   It is a book about asking questions.  I like questions—and generally think that we don’t ask enough of them.    What is the most important step in solving a problem?  Clearly defining the problem in the first place.  Asking questions is essential to effective problem-solving if we don’t want to waste a lot of time chasing rabbits through the weeds!

1.        Are We Talking About the Same Thing?  Rephrase the Problem.

In a recent post on one of the discussion forums I follow, someone asked what would be the first thing an OD consultant 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 doesn’t 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’ve 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.  Some of those assumptions may be accurate—but there is that maxim, “You know what happens when you assume.”  When assumptions are inaccurate our understanding of the problem is lacking and ineffective.  Phillips 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 the quirky 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.”   Problems have layers.

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?  Or is the problem really composed of several smaller problems?   Decomposing 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 is supposed to have 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.

“Can I ask a question?”


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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