The Importance of Asking the Right Questions and Framing the Right Problem
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said
This well known quote attributed to Henry Ford is not an indication of his contempt for customers, but of the need to go beyond what they literally say to what they really mean and do. There is something else that strikes me: the critical importance of asking the right question.
If, instead of addressing a transportation problem, Ford has framed the problem as one of breeding better horses, the gateway to a new industry would never have opened.
Why do the same strategic challenges re-surface year after
year, sometimes for decades, among associations and other mature industries?
Usually because the wrong questions derail problem-solving efforts from the get-go, dooming the process to an endless circular course and preventing it from a breakthrough.
Here is a common narrative for framing problems, for
“Our membership is down. Clearly we are not communicating our value to members forcefully enough. We are looking for help to figure out how we can best communicate our value to members; design a top-of-the-line, interactive website and ramp up marketing efforts.”
Is this the right problem to solve to increase reItention?
- Why is the problem diagnosed as poor communication rather than members’ experience of inadequate value from the association?
- On what basis was this conclusion reached?
- How do members think, frame and experience their problems and look for solutions?
- Has the association made any concrete difference
- to their ability to solve any of their key problems and how?
- Where do these members currently go to get help with their most important problems?
- What has been learned from conversations with members and observation of their behavior?
Design Thinking, a well-respected and innovative method for problem
solving and solutions development, encourages to ask this type of tough questions. It believes that identifying the right problem is the first step in problem-solving and the key to the innovation process and it is only by probing and questioning assumptions that you will clarify the right issues.
Tina Seelig, quoted in an article in Fast Company, sums up the key importance of re-framing in enabling a true process of innovation, unencumbered by existing categories and assumptions:
“What is the sum of 5 plus 5?”
What two numbers add up to 10?”
The first question has only one right answer, and the second question has an infinite number of solutions, including negative numbers and fractions. These two problems, which rely on simple addition, differ only in the way they are framed. In fact, all questions are the frame into which the answers fall. And as you can see, by changing the frame, you dramatically change the range of possible solutions. …We create frames for what we experience, and they both inform and limit the way we think.
Mastering the ability to reframe problems is an important tool for increasing your imagination because it unlocks a vast array of solutions. With experience it becomes quite natural.”
Identifying the right problem
- Do not frame a problem in terms of solutions, e.g. “we need better marketing,” etc. when tackling a retention problem.
- Use verbs rather than nouns. Reframe “we need a bigger water bucket” into “we need a faster and more efficient way for transporting 100 gallons of water from one location to another.” The latter allows for a broader range of solutions than looking for a bigger buck
- Ask multiple questions that debunk assumptions and eventually get to the gist of the problem: Why? How do we know this? On what basis are we making this conclusion? Or, as an article puts it, “…constant and relentless questioning, like that of a small child, Why? Why? Why? Until finally the simple answers are behind you and the true issues are revealed.”
- Do not rely on data. They cannot replace empathetic listening, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding what makes them “tick.” “The biggest challenge that companies face,” this article argues, “is using data to form a deep understanding of what customers care about. … A purely data-driven approach to understanding customer needs tells you where customers have been and what they have done. However, it does not reveal why the customers did what they did.”
- Observe closely and objectively rather than rely on your own opinion or on literal answers members give to direct questions. Observation in design thinking is akin to anthropological fieldwork and participant-observant methodology. Observe what your customers actually do, rather than say, and understand how they really think and perceive the world.
- Immerse yourself in multiple perspectives of the problem. What would constitute a problem from your staff’s, partner’s or customers’ perspective?
If your quest for solutions is driven by the wrong problem, you will deplete your organization’s resources without arriving at your desired destination. You will also miss opportunities for innovation and possibilities for breaking through to a different place.
“Most people are preoccupied with looking for answers, without realizing that theymight be asking the wrong questions in the first place,” says Danny Iny Founderband CEO of Mirasee, a business education company. He offers this quote by Einstein as his inspiration:
“When I have one week to solve a seemingly impossible problem, I spend six days defining the problem. Then, the solution becomes obvious.”