Why I don’t use the Word “Problem” Anymore


The idea that we need to identify what is in the way of our goals is good. But a focus on the word “problem” often  becomes the obstacle. Because we get stuck into a “situation, matter, or person that is hard to deal with or understand,” as the main definition suggests.

Some languages address the issue with a strong secondary meaning for an important word. Take for example “crisis.” It also means opportunity in Chinese. Instead of getting stuck with a difficult situation, we can shift our attention to what we can make of it. 

If instead of starting with a problem, we start with a question, we move the focus away from stuck (or denial) to discovery and potential.

Shifting to the creative use of questions

It's often hard to get people to admit there is a problem, never mind to identify the right problem, or be clear about what makes it one. The secondary meaning of “problem” boils down to question – “a question to be considered.”

Asking questions is something we learn to do very early in our lives, and then somehow stop. According to Dan Rothstein, co-founder of the Right Question Institute, questions not only open up thinking – they also can direct and focus it:

“People think of questioning as simple, but when done right, it's a very sophisticated, high-level form of thinking.”

Thinking well is a powerful way to renew our shelf-life. Like a durable building, thinking well means structuring our thoughts as a foundation of knowledge. This means letting go of comparisons as a starting point. How can we compare before we know?

There's a structural form of thinking. The fundamentals of structural thinking follow a simple, three-step process. Robert Fritz says you start with nothing and observe why what happened happened. This frees you from all preconceptions.

Our mind wants to find a comparison, so it immediately goes to what it knows. But the point is to discover what we don't know – or don't know we know. Observation is the first step.

The second step is to picture what people are saying. This is useful because in a visual language we can think in 3D, that is have many ideas at the same time. It follows observing with pictures.

Looking better at reality helps minimize bias. There may be relationships between things we missed. To see what someone else is saying accurately opens us up to more questions.

The third step is to ask questions to get more information, clarify or expand the picture, identify the implications or make what is implied evident, and find discrepancies. We do contradict ourselves, especially as we're not used to practicing constructing an argument with logic.

Questioning is an art, and it can lead to asking better questions.

We “do” problem solving

Doing is the point. Finding where the gap between just doing something, and doing it right may take time if we're dealing with complexity, many moving parts and a shifting context. Problem solving is an action.

The term “problem solving” means slightly different things depending on the discipline. In psychology, it's a mental process. In computer science, it's a computerized process. Would technology and behavior make problem solving a computerized mental process?

Many issues aren't well-defined, yet there are goals and we expect to find a solution. Part of the work when the issue is poorly-defined is to understand the context and the semantics, how we talk about it, to figure out if the aim and direction fit.

There are several methods to problem-solve. I like the OODA loop for its simplicity – observe, orient, decide, act. OODA is a cycle developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd and applied at the operational level. Today it's often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes.

The OODA loop explains how agility can overcome raw power. It was designed to describe a single decision maker, so it needs adapting for group decisions. Speed is an important factor, and groups tend to be slower at deciding.

I recently came across another interesting framework – the Mobius Canvas (see image above). It starts with the opportunity we seek, goes through questioning to outcomes, options, experimenting, measurement, and adapting in a cycle.

A question is a good starting point

It takes work to ask a good question, regardless of whether we know / can know the answer. But we can hardly get a good answer if the question is not good. This is why I stopped talking about problems and started thinking more about questions. It's where the real work is.

A child asks about forty thousand questions between the ages of two and five, progressing from seeking facts to looking for explanations. While this happens, we experience rapid brain growth by constantly connecting stimuli.

Why do we stop questioning? Warren Berger says:

As children venture out in the world – synapses firing in their heads – they constantly encounter things they cannot classify or label.

As the children's neurologist Stewart Mostofsky puts it, they have not yet developed “mental models” to categorize things, so part of what they are doing when questioning is asking adults to hep them with this huge job of categorizing hat they experience around them, labeling it, putting it in the proper file drawer of the brain.

We stop asking, because we think we know.

We can and should be more precise when we talk. Once we say something is mine, as in ‘our’ customers, ‘my’ team, we take away their individual characteristics and turn people into objects.

Focus on fixing problems, and now the people that are part of the conversation become passive recipients of advice, outcomes, and so on. “We ask people about their strengths, but still define people by their problems, or indeed view them as problems,” says Bryony Shannon.

Questioning takes us further. We need practice or we'll continue to have a hard time reaching an understanding.

INSEAD professor and questioning expert Hal Gregersen says, “the reason kids ask 'why' over and over again is often because we don't understand their questions, or we're just not listening.”

Can we reclaim our role as experts in listening, connections-making, and relationships-building?

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