The Answers are in the Questions

“To ask the right question is already half the solution of a problem.”

-Carl Jung

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that if he were given one hour to solve a problem that would save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem–by asking the right questions–and the remaining 5 minutes solving it.

Do you spend enough time asking questions?

As Jung and Einstein knew, clearly identifying and defining a problem is the first step toward solving it. Often, just by asking the right questions the solution reveals itself.

 Questioning isn’t just important in psychiatry and physics. The latest issue of the Harvard Business Review has a terrific article that asks, “Are You Solving the Right Problems?

The author, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg, points out that, “Spurred by a penchant for action, managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”  Beyond problem analysis, he advocates posing a few thoughtful questions that allow for a reframing of problems–seeing problems from a new angle opens up many more solutions.

An example of successful reframing from the HBR article is the problem of too many dogs in shelters, with advocates focused on solutions that involve finding more adoptive families.  But one woman reframed the problem–with 30% of dogs surrendered to shelters by their owners, she began asking these families if they would keep the dog if they could.  When they said Yes, she worked with them to solve the issues that brought them to the shelter; sometimes it was as simple as needing extra money for a pet deposit required by a new landlord.

Asking questions to identify the real problem has long been a key tenet of successful organizations. Toyota famously uses the “Five Whys” to identify problems, to allow solutions to emerge. “Even if initially time-consuming, identifying the root cause of a problem is important, because it allows us to take appropriate countermeasures to prevent recurrence in the long-term.”

Good teachers and professors encourage their students to ask thoughtful questions. They know that questions lead to understanding.

Ask More Questions

Next time you’re faced with a reputational or other public relations challenge, take a step back, alone or with your team.  Write down the issue at the top of a piece of paper (or a blank computer screen).  Next, write down your objective–what is the outcome you hope to achieve?  Then start asking questions, such as:

  • Why does this matter?
  • What category of problem does this fall into? Could it also fit into other categories?
  • How could we reframe the problem?
  • What factors are contributing to the problem? What efforts are being undertaken to alleviate it?
  • Do we need additional information?
  • Was there a time when this problem didn’t occur?  What was different?
  • Have others faced a similar issue? What did they do?
  • Is there an obvious path to the desired outcome? How many other possible paths to our goal can we brainstorm–even if some of them seem crazy?
  • What will it look like when we achieve our objective?

Step outside of your everyday mindset to come up with questions relevant to your specific situation. What would an objective facilitator ask to help you reframe the and get to the root of the problem?

While getting hammered in the media or confronted with other challenges can feel unsolvable, as communications professionals it’s our job to ensure we ask enough questions to fully understand the issues and define the outcomes we hope to achieve. Once we do that, identifying the way forward isn’t so overwhelming.

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