I was recently asked a question. “What would you do if you were told that you have to solve this problem by tomorrow or you would lose this 12 Million Dollar contract?” Interesting question. What would you do? I ran across a quote from Albert Einstein that seems appropriate. Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”
Another Einstein quote might illuminate this a bit more. He said, “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Staying with problems longer and spending the first 55 minutes of the critical hour on the proper question tell me that Albert Einstein, a pretty intelligent guy, thought questions were important. In fact, If you’ll indulge me one more quote from the genius, he also said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” So, if we want to find a solution to our problem, we need to ask ourselves the right question. How do you find that?
In the 1930’s Japanese industrialist, inventor, and founder of Toyota Industries, Sakichi Toyoda, developed the 5 Why’s problem-solving technique. The technique is in the name. You simply define a problem and ask why this problem exists 5 times until you find the appropriate counter-measure to prevent it in the future. The example given in a “Mind Tools” article is this:
Problem: Our client refuses to pay for leaflets we printed for him
Why #1 – the delivery was late so the leaflets couldn’t be used
Why #2 – the job took longer than we expected
Why #3 – we ran out of printer ink
Why #4 – the ink was all used on a larger, last-minute order
Why #5 – we didn’t have enough ink in stock and couldn’t order supplies in time.
Counter-Measure: find an ink supplier who can deliver at short notice so that we can continue to minimize inventory, reduce waste, and respond to customer demands.
In his book, Developing The Leader Within You 2.0, John Maxwell suggests six questions that will help us solve problems. Four of them are “who” questions. He calls them:
- The Information question – Who knows the most about this problem? Don’t jump to conclusions or start “solving” the problem before you understand it as fully as possible.
- The Experience question – Who knows what I need to know? “He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a mentor.” –playwright Ben Johnson. Is there someone who can mentor you through this problem?
- The Challenge question – Who wants to tackle this problem? Who can do this is a good question. Who wants to do this, is a better one. The want to will often give a person an edge in finding solutions.
- The Magnitude question – Who needs to buy in, and how long will that take? Often solutions have an impact on people’s work and lives. The bigger the problem, the more potential impact the solution may have. What pre-work do we need to do in preparing people for the solution?
Maxwell’s sixth question is “What questions do I need to ask myself?” The other day I decided to do an experiment. I called it “Running the Interrogatives.” I defined a problem and then I listed the six main English interrogatives: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I began to mentally list as many “who” questions as I could about that problem. Then I did the same with”what” questions and so on.
Forcing myself to think of different questions under each interrogative made me look at the problem from different angles. One simple example is “Who contributed to creating this problem?” versus “Who is most impacted by this problem?” Those are almost opposite points of view. Then you have Maxwell’s four “who” questions and so on.
I began to understand why Einstien said he would spend so much of his critical hour searching for the proper question. Leaders tend to be action-oriented. Maybe great leaders pause to understand the question before offering an answer.