The perfect solution is just a perfect question away

Guest Post by Bill Sheridan

We’re all looking for solutions these days. In a world of exponential change, we need to solve our problems faster than ever, right?

Maybe not. What if solving those problems started by asking better questions?

It’s not a crazy thought. In fact, it’s the thought du jour among leaders everywhere.

Here’s Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas:
“Questions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently.”

Here’s Hal Gregersen, executive director of MIT’s Leadership Center and author of Questions Are The Answer:
“No dramatically better solution is possible without a better question,” Gregersen writes. “Without changing your questions, you cannot get beyond incremental progress along the same path you’ve been pursuing. … Questions turn out to be the most effective way of breaking through the wall of resistance. In a tentative, non-aggressive way, questions crack open taboo territory and encourage us — individually and collectively — to reexamine fundamental assumptions we are making.”

Here’s William Ury, director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University and author of Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations:
Problem-solving questions bring us tantalizingly close to great solutions. Here are a few great ones:

  1. Ask “Why?” Every why peels back another layer of the onion until you finally get to the heart of the matter.
  2. If asking “Why?” doesn’t work, try asking “Why not?” Propose an option and ask, “Why not do it this way?” The answers will often reveal a lot about others’ interests, which you can address in turn.
  3. Ask “What if?” This helps introduce solutions without challenging their position. “What if we were to try this instead?” Or, “What if I can help you show the board how doing this will positively impact the bottom line?”
  4. Ask for advice. “What would you suggest that I do?” “What do you think my next steps should be?” It flatters others and puts them in charge while giving you a chance to educate them about your position.
  5. Make your questions open-ended. Instead of asking, “Can’t the policy be changed?” ask, “What’s the purpose of that policy?” or  “How would you advise me to proceed?”

Here are Chip and Dan Heath, authors of The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact
Every “Why?” gets you closer to your true solution. Here’s an example: How do you find your purpose at work? By continuously asking “Why?” The Heaths use a hospital janitor as an example:

  • Why do you clean hospital rooms? “Because that’s what my boss tells me to do.”
  • Why should you do that? “Because it keeps the rooms from getting dirty.”
  • Why does that matter? “Because it makes the rooms more sanitary and more pleasant.”
  • Why does that matter? “Because it keeps the patient healthy and happy.”

Boom. Why do you clean hospital rooms? Because it keeps the patients healthy and happy. That’s a pretty damned good purpose.

Here’s Todd Kashdan, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life:
“Curiosity is hard-wired in the brain, and its specific function is to urge us to explore, discover, and grow,” Kashdan writes. “Without curiosity, we are unable to sustain our attention, we avoid risks, we abort challenging tasks, we compromise our intellectual development, we fail to achieve competencies and strengths, we limit our ability to form relationships with other people, and essentially, we stagnate.

“To be sure, curiosity is not the only quality that contributes to a happy, meaningful, and fulfilling life,” he adds. “That being said, it’s hard to think of a human endeavor where curiosity doesn’t play a vital role. … Few areas are more worthy of our time and effort than enhancing our ability to be curious.”

Here’s Gino Wickman, creator of the Entrepreneurial Operating System and author of Traction: Get A Grip On Your Business:
Achieving your vision depends on your ability to solve your problems. Solving your problems starts with clearly identifying the actual problem, because all too frequently, the stated problem is merely a symptom that something else is wrong.

And identifying the actual problem often starts by asking, “Why is this a problem?” Ask that frequently enough and you’ll eventually peel back enough layers to expose the root problem. When you do that, the solution often is painfully clear.


What’s my point?

Do you really need to ask?

Yes, for Heaven’s sake, ask … and keep asking.

The more questions you ask, the closer you come to the perfect solution.
Bill Sheridan


Bill Sheridan is a knowledge hunter, content curator, lifelong learner, and EOS implementer. As chief communications officer for the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, he created and co-authors the association’s acclaimed blog, CPA Success, and manages the association’s member communications and numerous social networks. He was named one of Accounting Today’s “100 Most Influential People in Accounting” for 2016.


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