As an executive and team coach, I spend a lot of time helping people develop solutions to problems. What to do with a problem employee? How to develop the right strategy? When to start a new initiative?
Core to the coaching process is developing plans and execution strategies and then guiding people to take action and implement. However, I’ve found that often times, the most value I add is not in helping find the answer, but helping find the right question.
Albert Einstein famously 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.” He knew that before you can find the right answer, you first need to find the right question.
Often, once you find the right question, the answer follows much more naturally. The right question brings about clarity and focus to the issue, which helps to illuminate the path to resolution. More importantly, time and energy spent arriving at the right answer to the wrong question is wasted. The perfect answer to the wrong question is still the wrong answer.
Finding the perfect question, however, can be difficult (which is why I get paid the big bucks). By asking, or thinking, the following to yourself, you can refine your question before you start investing in finding an answer.
Is this the biggest problem you have?
The first thing to consider is that this might not be the biggest problem you have. What are your other problems? What are the impacts of all of your problems? How might you discover what other problems you have? How should you prioritize these problems? Going through these questions will help ensure your focus is on the right issue, or help you to refocus your attention to where your effort will yield a better return.
A great technique at this phase is to conduct a retrospective. This will systematically review the recent past to gather data and generate insights that otherwise might have been forgotten or missed. Get the right people together and dig into the right discussions to unearth these valuable gems.
What is causing this problem?
I’m a big Lean advocate, which uses the great technique of root cause analysis. By tracing a problem back down the causal path, you can find more fundamental issues that are driving the surface level effects. The customer service problem can quickly become a problem of operational standards, quality assurance or even defective raw materials.
Making changes to the call center script will never improve the quality of the core components. I liken it to finding a leak in a house: you might see the water in the basement, but the problem is the flashing in the chimney.
What new problems might surface if I solve this problem?
Another consideration is what will happen if you fix the problem being considering? Will that just cause other, potentially worse problems? Not solving the issue at the core means you’re applying band-aids at best, but worse, you could be introducing even more trouble. In the early days of antibiotics, treatments would stop infections but end up poisoning the patient. Make sure that what you’re considering doesn’t have adverse effects at the higher level.
Are there other ways to phrase this problem?
Lastly, even a rewriting of the problem can lead to a different type of thinking, subsequently leading to different types of solutions. In the best cases, a good writing can turn a problem into a creative solution.
Bruce Eckfeldt is an entrepreneur, a former Inc 500 CEO, and member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He is an expert in organizational performance and coaches startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at http://www.eckfeldt.com.
This post originally appeared in Business Insider:http://www.businessinsider.com/the-right-question-comes-before-the-right-answer-2015-6#ixzz3dAGeNDa0