The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question. –Peter Drucker
Tim Hurson tells a story in his book Think Better that got my attention. He shares that NASA invested millions of dollars developing a zero gravity pen because the pens we had did not work in space. The Soviets, of course, had the same problem. Except their solution was far simpler and much cheaper – use a pencil.
How could such smart people miss something so obvious?
The simple answer is that they asked a different question, hence they solved a different problem. NASA asked “how can we get a pen to write in space?”. The Soviet’s asked “how can we write in space?”. Both questions and the problems they were trying to solve were valid. And both could declare success. After all, they solved their problem.
Yet it is the thinking behind the questions we ask and the problems we choose to solve that I believe merits a closer look.
Consider that this is a clear demonstration of what happens when we focus on solving a problem without first getting clear about what we want and need to accomplish.
NASA asked a questions that led to solving the problem of the pen not writing in space. The Soviets asked a question that essentially focused them on the desired outcome based on the need at hand – to be able to write in space.
Unfortunately at the time it seems like we know exactly what we are trying to accomplish. In fact, it is often so clear in our own minds that we don’t even stop to consider that perhaps we are not asking the question that will put us on the most productive path to accomplish what we need to accomplish in the first place.
Consider that our propensity to focus on problems rather than desired outcomes is a potentially very costly blind spot.
In coaching thousands of people in producing breakthrough results, this is one of the most common blind spots I have encountered. Attempts to intervene are more often than not met with resistance because it feels like it is unnecessarily slowing people down. It seems inefficient. Unfortunately we all too often choose what seems to be efficient in the moment at the expense of our ultimate productivity.
The costs of solving the wrong problem can be enormous as demonstrated in this example. It is neither efficient nor productive.
Why do we fall into this trap?
Tim points out that “Your mind consistently chooses to follow well worn patterns, rather than generate new thoughts, new interpretations or new ways of doing things.” In this example he points out that NASA was grounded in looking for solutions based in high technology so that is the pattern of thinking they automatically defaulted to. This is certainly part of the thinking behind the question they asked.
I also think there is another well worn pattern of thinking at play here: focusing on problems rather outcomes.
We have been trained and rewarded for being great problem solvers. It is a highly useful skill and can be incredibly satisfying. We love to solve problems. We also like to get into action as quickly as possible so we are inherently motivated to identify the problem quickly so we can get right to work.
For the most part we have not been trained in the discipline of outcome based thinking.
For many people, taking the time to step back from a problem and think about what we really want to accomplish can occur as a waste of time, especially when the problem, and even the solution, seem so obvious.
Problem solving usually feels like the right thing to do in the moment which is why there is little motivation to challenge our thinking. Yet without the discipline of what Tim Hurson calls productive or Tenkaizen thinking we limit what is possible. What else might NASA have invented with those same resources if they just used a pencil?
In Think Better, Tim Hurson makes the case for the value of investing in the discipline of productive thinking. He also offers a very effective and accessible model for how to engage in productive thinking. I highly recommend the book.
What I offer here is one simple thing you can do to intervene in the drift of what I call our addiction to problem solving:
Next time you find yourself solving a problem, stop and ask yourself (and your team) these questions:
1. What are we ultimately trying to accomplish in solving this problem?
2. How will we know we have accomplished it?
3. Will solving this problem accomplish that objective or are there other things we need to consider or problems we also need to solve?
You will likely still end up solving a problem, although it may not be the one you originally thought you had. However, you will also increase your chances of asking and answering more productive questions.
What techniques do you use for making sure you are asking and answering the best possible questions?