The Power of Questions

In Questioning for Creativity, I introduced the story of the NASA space pen. The story goes like this. A group of smart NASA scientists decide they need to decide a pen that works in zero gravity (have you ever tried writing with the pen pointing up?). They design a gazillion dollar space pen that works just about anywhere, including outer space. Meanwhile, the Russians decide to use pencils. The story is engaging and funny, and it teaches us to make sure we are asking the right question before we jump in and start coming up with ideas. It is also an urban myth. NASA did use pencils, but found them to be flammable with heads that break off and float dangerously around the cabin. The lesson here, get your facts straight. Not only do you need to ask the right question, you also need to know your stuff.
And so over the past 2 weeks I’ve posted various approaches to asking the right question, gathering information, and generally directing our attention towards solving the right problem, and choosing which information to question further. Following is a quick summary of the techniques.
Why are we here?
Before you even start thinking about problem solving, it helps to know why we are solving the problem in the first place. By this I mean
  • Why did this problem happen?
  • Who is affected?
  • How will a solution be of benefit?
Five Whys is a great technique for finding this out. You basically act like a child and ask ‘why’ repeatedly until the ‘real problem’ emerges. In the case of Jeff Bezos, asking why led him from the symptom of a factory worker catching their thumb in a conveyor belt to the underlying problem of a factory worker not having any place to set their tools down at the start of their shift. By the end of the 5 ‘Whys’ we now know why the problem happened in the first place, who was affected and how a solution will help them.
Look at the big picture
Problems are often framed with a solution in mind, e.g. “How can we design a pen that works in space” instead of “How can we write in space”, or “what’s the quickest way to drive to the airport’ instead of ‘what’s is the quickest way to get to the airport’.
Our natural impulse when faced with a problem is to start solving it right away. Unfortunately, this is often the wrong problem, giving us rapid results that don’t quite hit the nail on the head. Zooming out, or chunking up, is one way we can focus our attention on the big picture to make sure we really are asking the right questions to begin with.
In simple terms, zooming out has us generalise key problem concepts, e.g. cars become transport and pens become something to write with. Once we have identified the higher level concepts, we simply ask ourselves ‘what is important here’ and ‘can I frame this problem any better’.
Get the details
Once we are happy with the basic purpose of our problem solving, we need to start gathering the facts. It’s important to know what you are talking about. Creative thinking is great, but if you don;t gather the facts and start using some subject knowledge you risk producing the simple ravings of an idiot:
Problem: Let’s find a new way to get commuters to work…
Uninformed ‘creative’ ravings: What about using flying sky cars? or big chains of inflatables that velcro together and float us down the river?
I discussed three different methods for gathering problem information.
  • Six Frames: Edward de Bono’s approach uses six very broad perspectives to systematically consider different aspects of a problem when gathering information. Purpose (why are we solving), accuracy (information credibility), perspective (who is affected), interest (which facts are key), value (what do we want), outcome (overview).
  • TERMS: a robust technique for empathising with end users when defining value propositions, typically used to develop disruptive blue ocean strategy but also equally useful for systematically considering a problem from different perspectives around impact
  • Business model canvas: a great tool for gathering information on how a business model works (and can be disrupted)
Frame the problem
The final step before we get started is to frame our problem properly. As humans, we all suffer from our own natural bias. Depending on the way a problem is framed we are likely to focus more on  some aspects of it than on others. In this famous example on framing effects it is shown that we prefer a risky choice if there is a benefit involved, but will avoid a risky choice of there is a negative impact involved. When combined with our own tendency to interpret situations according to our own past experience it is vitally important to agree not only on what the right question is, and what information is relevant, but to decide how to ask that question.
I introduced two techniques:
  • In assumption busting I outlined some techniques for identifying our own assumptions, those facts that ‘go without saying’ and use them to get clarity and consensus when framing a problem.
  • With six value medals I outlined de Bono’s technique for exploring our concept of value, used to define what we are looking for as well as to recognise the best ideas once we have found them.

The Creative Thinking Process

There are a lot of steps in creative thinking, and many ways for linking them together. Over the coming week or so I’ll look at a variety of models for managing the creative thinking process.


One thought on “The Power of Questions

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