Understanding Problems and Questions

When problem solving, too often we jump right in without questioning if this is the right problem to solve or question to ask. Ask the wrong question, and you'll receive the wrong answer. Ask the right question and you'll often find the answer fairly quickly.

Questions are critical to problem solving and I use them interchangeably for simplicity, although there is a slightly difference. Clayton Christensen talks about the importance of questions in relation to problem solving so eloquently:

Questions are places in your mind where answers go to fit. If you haven't asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces off. You have to ask the question - you have to want to know - in order to open space for the answer to fit.

Since questions are so important, how do you know if you're asking the right question or solving the right problem? Simply, you need to ask a question of your question.

Asking a question of your question means stepping back and evaluating if you are framing the question or problem correctly. In deductive reasoning, framing typically involes stating facts or making assumptions that eventually build to a logical answer. This leads to questions like:

  • What are you framing and do you need a frame?
  • Are your facts or assumptions correct?
  • What is the context surrounding your problem? Is it needed?
  • Could you be more specific with your question? Are you too specific?
  • Are you asking in the affirmative or the negative?
  • What are my assumptions? What happens if I start removing assumptions?

For example, in the late 1800s, physicists tried to understand why light from the sun, when compared to the Earth's motion appeared to move at the exact same speed even at different angles. All approached this problem using a widely-held assumption of absolute time, which was first proposed by Issac Newton in 1687. Leading physicists were unable to find an answer for decades until 1905 when Albert Einstein, an unknown clerk working in the Swiss Patent Office at the time, proposed that absolute time was unnecessary to find an answer. He thought if you remove the idea of absolute time from the problem context, the answer was actually quite simple to solve. As a result of this, Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was born and has become the basis for what humanity believes about Space and Time today.

Why was a clerk able to succeed when the leading physicists from around the world failed? Einstein firmly understood the importance of framing problem and questions properly:

"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 five minutes."

And Clayton Christensen has a great example on the importance of understanding problems from a marketing and product development angle.

The next time you're stumped or are struggling with a problem, spend some time determining if you're working on the right problem or asking the question. Be honest with yourself. If you determine you're heading down the wrong path, you just saved youself some valuable time with course-correction. If not, maybe you were able to improve an assumption or see your problem from a different angle. Either way, make sure to ask a question of your question.