As a society, we are so accustomed to being asked to find the right answer that we often don’t look beyond that answer. This can problematic when we develop strategy. In fact, it can be problematic anytime we are trying to solve a problem.
When developing strategy, it is imperative to think strategically. And, a key component of strategic thinking is creative thinking. Creative thinking is also vital when solving problems outside of the strategy development realm.
Creative thinking demands that we come up with a variety of solutions. Maybe our first “right” answer is the best solution, but maybe the best right answer is the second, fourth or tenth right answer. The point is, we won’t know if our first “right” answer is the best until we have developed other solutions to compare and contrast it to.
The first step to identifying the best right answer is asking the right question. That starts with by charging your team with finding the right solutions or answers, not the right solution or answer. It also requires that your team challenges or ignores its assumptions. How you word the question can make a difference as well.
If we ask an employee or group of people to solve a problem, they will typically rely on their assumptions and come up with the solution. They will find a sense of satisfaction when they first encounter the solution and be happy to demonstrate that they have the solution. What they often don’t do is continue to search for other answers. As a facilitator, leader or manager it is your job to encourage them to develop multiple answers or solutions.
The Right Answer
In Roger von Oech’s book “A whack on the Side of the Head, ” he has some excellent examples that demonstrate the importance of not stopping with the right answer and the importance of asking the right question. But first, I need you to select the shape below that is different from all of the others.
If you picked B, great job, you are right. B is the only shape that is made from all straight lines. Of course, if you picked C, you are right as well, as it is the only shape that is asymmetrical. But, then, A is also a right choice as it is the only shape with no points. As you give it more thought, you see that D is also the right answer; it is the only shape that has both straight curved lines.
The point is, often there are many right answers. However, the right answer is not always the best answer.
The Right Question
Von Oech goes on to tell the story about a plague striking a village many centuries ago. Those stricken with the plague almost immediately fell into a death like coma. Most died within a day, although a few miraculously survived. One problem the village faced was that in the 1700s medical technology wasn’t very advanced and it was extremely difficult to tell the dead from those still alive.
The village was horrified one day when they discovered that someone was accidentally buried alive. So a group of villagers got together and solved the problem by agreeing to put a little food and water in each casket along with an air tube going to the surface. It was an expensive solution, but they knew it could save lives. A second group also got together and developed a cheaper solution; they would affix a knife blade to the inside top of each coffin that would pierce the heart of the victim as the coffin was closed, thereby assuring that no one would be buried alive.
The solutions were different because each group used a different question to find the solution. The first group asked, “what if we bury someone alive” and the second group asked, “how can we make sure everyone we bury is dead”?
When confronted with a problem that is similar to a previous problem we have dealt with, it is human nature to assume that the solutions and results will be similar. However, when developing strategy and solving problems it is important to either forget or challenge assumptions. The fatal nature of not challenging assumptions is illustrated in the story of Croeus, the last ruler of the great Lydian Empire.
As Croeus contemplated attacking the Persians in 546 BC, he turned to two oracles for advice. They both answered that if he attacked the Persians, a great empire would be lost. This made him feel secure and gave him the confidence to move forward; so he formed an alliance and attacked the Persians. In the end, Croeus was defeated and true to the oracles statement, a great empire was lost. Croeus’ fatal assumption was two fold: he relied on the first right answer, which was the one he assumed he would find, and he assumed since he had went into battle before and won that he would get a similar result this time.
Good Strategy / Effective Problem Solving
Good strategy and effective problem solving demand that we ask the right questions, challenge our assumptions and develop a number of right solutions before moving forward with the best solution. The next time you ask a group or an employee to solve a problem, ask them to identify solutions not a singular solution. Then make sure you and they are challenging the assumption upon which the answer rests. Of course, before you even ask them to solve the problem, it is imperative that you’ve identified the right problem and ask the right question; after all a great strategy for the wrong problem is no strategy at all.