What Questions Do You Use to Solve Problems?

When you solve problems, do you find that you start with one question a lot? I often ask “Why” or a question like that. Not in the sense of “How did things get this way,” but “Why do things work like this?” For me, it’s a sense of curiosity. Here’s an example.

For years, when we drove places, I did not understand the orange balls on the wires. I would ask Mark, “Why are there orange balls on the wires?” The problem is that once we arrived, I never looked up the orange balls.

Finally, Mark discovered the truth, and told me. I almost wish he had concocted a whopper like the Family Secret Revealed (no longer valid link). But the whopper is something more that I would do. If you need an answer to a question, I have one, whether or not it is correct. I always have an answer.

Mark tends to ask “What,” to understand the data. When we were trying to understand the orange ball mystery, he asked me many questions: where had I seen them, under what conditions had I seen them.

Some people like to ask to ask “When,” especially to understand if you need something by a certain time or to know if there is urgency.

Some people like to ask “Who,” to understand the people involved.

If you are solving a problem or doing an assessment, you need all of these questions. How else can you see the problem in its entirety?

What’s interesting to me is this: Where do you start with your questions? If you leave any of them out, you miss part of the problem.

If you know the 5 W’s of Journalism, the questions are: Why, How (did it happen), What, Where, When, and Who. (Yes, there are 6 questions, not 5.)

You can start with any question. Just don’t stop there. You need to fill in the rest of the picture, the rest of the story.

Let’s discuss these questions. If you looked at the wikipedia article, you noticed that I changed the order of the questions. That’s because some of the questions are open questions and some are closed.

The Why, How, and What questions are open questions. You can’t answer them with a one-word answer. You need to explain your answer. The Where, When, and Who questions are closed questions. They are fact-based, and allow you to find the data, but the data is “just the facts, ma’am.” No explanation needed.

It’s not that open questions are good and closed questions are bad. They are different. If you only asked one type of questions, you would not collect all the data. That would be unfortunate—either way.

If you only ask open questions, you don’t acquire the basic fact data. If you want police shows on TV, you notice that the cops ask the closed questions all the time. It’s a good thing. It’s those details that allow them to solve the cases. If you only ask closed questions, you don’t understand the motivations, the meaning behind why people do what they do. That’s bad, because people are such interesting, complex beings.

This week, dear adaptable problem-solvers, your question of the week is: What questions do you use to solve problems?

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