The ability to think on your feet is an important skill, as this story illustrates:
Two lawyers arrive at the pub and ordered a couple of drinks. They then take sandwiches from their briefcases and began to eat.
Seeing this, the angry owner approaches them and says, ‘Excuse me, but you cannot eat your own sandwiches in here!’
The two look at each other, shrug and exchange sandwiches.
Sherlock Holmes: “Yes the strange incident with the dog.”
Constable: “But, the dog did nothing, Sir!”
Sherlock Holmes: “Yes! That is the strange incident.”
Lesson: Management has to be like Sherlock Holmes and have the ability see what isn’t there. They have to hear the dog that does not bark. They need to see ‘what is missing and essential’
That ability will protect the organisation against Reputation Risk.
Sometimes we get so technical in trying to effect change in a company. Sometimes a simple small change, (those things that system thinking experts call leverage points – those small, well-focused actions that can, when used at the right time and in the right place, produce significant, lasting benefits exponentially beyond the effort required to take the action step itself), can make all the difference.
A principal of a small middle school had a problem with a few of the older girls starting to use lipstick. When applying it in the bathroom they would then press their lips to the mirror and leave lip prints.
Before it got out of hand he thought of a way to stop it. He gathered all the girls together that wore lipstick and told them he wanted to meet with them in the ladies room at 2pm.
They gathered at 2pm and found the principal and the school cleaner waiting for them. The principal explained that it was becoming a problem for the cleaner to clean the mirror every night. He said he felt the ladies did not fully understand just how much of a problem it was and he wanted them to witness just how hard it was to clean.
The cleaner then demonstrated. He took a long brush on a handle out of a box. He then dipped the brush in the nearest toilet, moved to the mirror and proceeded to remove the lipstick.
That was the last day the girls pressed their lips on the mirror.
Your choice should depend on the situation, whether you are exchanging information, seeking the solution to a problem, interviewing or counselling.
But before we speak about questions, we need to take a step backward. I believe that we need to first understand the DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PROBLEM AND A DECISION.
A problem is a "train off a track". Something has not gone the way it was planned or expected to. Problem solving is finding out the reasons why and the possibility of getting things back on track. Decisions are about deciding which alternative is best.
To become adept at solving problems you need to master both analytical and creative problem solving techniques, so that you can ask the relevant questions. For instance there are times when you need to ask objective questions – these are to ask for specific information. "What evidence do you have for that conclusion?" "How have you been handling this process?" "What factors are necessary to raise your Customer Satisfaction Index?"
Problem Solving questions – ask these when you want action ideas. "What should you do next?" "How would you implement the steps we just discussed?"
"Why are we so much better at answering questions than at answering the right questions? Is it because we are trained at school and university to answer questions that others have asked? If so, should we be trained to ask questions?" [Or trained to ask the complete set of right questions in the right way?] Trevor Kletz (Analog Science Fiction, January 1994, p195)
One of the problems with looking for solutions to problems is that we always come to a problem with our years of experience behind us. This can sometimes direct our thinking down certain familiar paths, and we can miss other paths which might lead to better solutions.
When people do this, always tell them this quote – In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few — Shunryu Suzuki
One way to help overcome this tendency is to force yourself to approach a problem from a completely different point of view. Alex Osborn in his pioneering book Applied Imagination talks about "Questions as spurs to ideation", and outlines about 75 idea-spurring questions in his book.
The simplest set of questions comes from the six basic questions:
- Why is it necessary?
- Where should it be done?
- When should it be done?
- Who should do it?
- What should be done?
- How should it be done?
Osborn went on with the following questions:
Adapt? Modify? Substitute? Magnify/Maximise? Minimise/Eliminate? Rearrange? Reversal? Combine?
Start applying these questions to your problems and see what ideas come forth.
In your quest for learning to ask different questions, you should read Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys in which he describes the rearrangement of the above questions into the mnemonic SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine Adapt, Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate, Reverse)
You should also consider the 7s Mckinsey Framework. My own perspective is that the type of decision isn’t as important, as knowing the questions to consider, or having a good model which shows different considerations to explore.
- What’s the impact on people?
- What’s the impact on process?
- Impact on Technology?
- Impact on the marketplace?
- Impact on the business?
- Impact on Reputation, Trust & Integrity?
The best I believe is a combination of a systematic and creative approach to problem solving and decision-making. Understanding different models of thinking will enable you to look different at every situation or to apply the right question to the right problem.
As someone once said: "Solutions often lies in the question not asked".
Experienced market researchers, accident investigators and law enforcement officials will tell you that how you ask questions can influence the results you get.
This is what my son shared with me the other night, when I asked him what he had learned that day at university (He is studying Creative Brand Communications).
His reply reminded me of the two priests who got into an argument about smoking and praying at the same time. They couldn’t resolve it, so they decided to each write to the Pope and have him decide it.
When both had received their answers, they got together. "What did His Holiness tell you?" asked the first.
"He said that it was fine," answered the second. "What did he tell you?"
"Very strange," responded the first. "He told me that it was forbidden. What did you ask him, anyway?"
"I asked if it was all right to pray while smoking. He said that prayer is always appropriate. What did you ask him?"
"I asked him if it was all right to smoke while praying. He said that smoking would defame the sacred act, so it is forbidden."
Often, it’s all in how you ask the question!