#53: Problem Solving – Asking the right questions

Socrates was said to have referred to himself as the ‘gadfly’ – and that all societies need one to ‘sting the steed of state into acknowledging its proper duties and obligations’. It didn’t out too well for him though – Athens didn’t take too kindly to this ‘fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you’ (he was referring to the State). No wonder the Athenians got tired of him and eventually forced him, as the story goes, to commit suicide. While Socrates had an important point, it is also a cautionary tale on when to draw the line on asking questions and get on with it. Also, Socrates was not alone on this – almost all ancient cultures have a rich lineage of intellectual seekers who have emphasized the importance of asking questions as integral to the process of seeking clarity.

It is obvious now that the art and science of asking questions is critical – not just in philosophy – but in just about every area of enquiry. Cut to the present – and asking questions is a critical skill in every problem-solving team in organizations: and not just to get to the right problem that we want to solve, but also to make sure that we are solving the problem the right way.

Critical Thinking: 6 types of Socratic Questions

Asking questions is obviously a skill that can be learnt – and indeed, should be taught to every problem-solving team. Here’s a framework that I have found very useful in making sure you cover all the bases when starting a project (and indeed, at every stage in the project). This one is from Richard Paul1(he has a book on this very topic – I must confess this is one of the books I hope to read some day – for now, a book clocking at 570 pages on this topic is daunting, which is why I chose the decidedly non-Socratic method of looking his work online). This list itself is self-explanatory – and looks deceptively easy. The art of course, is asking the right question in the relevant context and not chase down rabbit holes. Comes with practice – but for now, this would be as good as any list to use in your next meeting.

There are many such – this is the one I have used2

Exploring Adjacencies

And to this list, I would offer a 7th category: Questions that explore adjacencies. This comes from evolutionary biology – a concept that biologist Stuart Kauffman3 described in his theory of the ‘adjacent possible’: where he investigated how the ‘actual expands into the adjacent possible and through that, a characteristic that evolved for one purpose is adapted laterally for a completely different use’. Evolutionary biologists call this ‘exaptation’: for instance, feathers, whose initial function may have been to provide warmth became key to flight.

This can be especially powerful when it comes to exploring how to look beyond the obvious data and capabilities. Amazon is a case study on this: they push the boundaries on how to look broadly for new uses of existing capabilities or new ways to solve problems. In their playbook, there are two ways to do this: skills-forward (we have a capability and talent: what are the applications and how can we recruit customers? AWS being the much storied example in this case) or customer-needs-backwards (there is a clear customer need: how can we build the capability to serve the need? Kindle came out of this question)

Why is it important to be asking good questions?

This is not just a glib recursive point – it is useful to list down the reasons – each one of them deserves attention and I will try to expand on them in the next blog, but for now here are my top-4:

  1. Getting to the right problem to solve
  2. Making sure that the problem is being solved the right way
  3. Making sure that the teams are minimizing their own biases (while being fully aware biases are not going to disappear altogether)
  4. Making sure that the adjacencies are being explored

Getting to the right problem to solve: for our context, the ‘right problem’ is the one that creates the most impact in your organization. The CMO of a service subscription business is measured on Subscriber Churn: the most important question here is not ‘what is the churn?’ (after all, it is an important metric but also just that, a number). It may not even by ‘why is my churn increasing?’ but more usefully, a series of questions: ‘who are the customers who are at the highest propensity to churn?’ (a better question that most teams are thinking of); ‘what are the customer actions that correlate with their churn behavior?’ (now it gets interesting – and immediately actionable); ‘what are the contexts that could lead to the customer actions that correlate with their churn behavior?’ (now we are truly getting to the root cause – e.g. is it a policy change or a new service launched by the competitor etc.) The value clearly is pushing the teams to progressively and quickly get to the right questions to address.

One good way to ensure that this really happens is to keep a close eye on what is coming out of the analysis: did the solution actually provide insights and recommendations that helped move the metric: in this case, the subscription churn? And for that, do you have the right methods to monitor this? And as any marketing analyst would tell you, just as churn as an overall metric is not very useful or actionable, the insights and action recommendations need to be at the right level of two opposing factors: specificity and accuracy – trying to explain the churn context at too granular level will mean sacrificing accuracy; and trying to chase accuracy will make it too coarse a level to be truly insightful. And herein lies the challenge and the opportunity: it is more than just the right problem to solve but to go all the way to ensuring that the solution actually provides the right measurable outcome.

More on the other three next week. If you have any other reasons, do share.

References/Further reading:

  1. For the not so faint-hearted, here is the book by Richard Paul
  2. http://www.1000advices.com/guru/communication_questions_socratic.html
  3. Stuart Kauffman: lots of writings, some quite popular. Easily findable through Google

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