Most of us have toolkits that contain whatever is needed for addressing problems that have inherently well-defined structure. For example, we can all calculate how long a project will take given the list of tasks, their dependencies, and the effort and time required for each task. It might be laborious, but it's doable. And if we give that same set of data to two different people, the results would be in close agreement.
But some problems don't have inherently clear structure. Some cannot be expressed mathematically. For example, to determine why Lisa and Louis can't get along, mathematics is of no use. Even when we can imagine calculating an answer to a problem, we must be certain that we've expressed the problem completely, without duplication. For example, to determine the capital needs of a startup company, we need to have a complete list of its equipment needs. In that case, it's easy to generate a list, but not so easy to determine that the list is complete.
For unstructured For unstructured problems, it's useful
to have a list of questions to ask that
might serve as guides for ensuring
that we understand the problemproblems, it's useful to have a list of questions to ask that might serve as guides for ensuring that we understand the problem. For that purpose, I offer the list below, in no particular order.
- What questions would I like to know the answers to?
- If I had the answer to question X, what do I think the answer would be?
- If I had the answer to question X, what questions would I ask next?
- I don't know the answer to question X, but what do I know about the answer to question X?
- I don't know the answer to question X, but what do I know about the answer to question X that I've forgotten I know?
- What's the significance of the answer to question X? What does it matter?
- If I had the answer to question X how could it change what I'm doing now? How would it change what I plan to do next?
- The answer to question X was Y last week. Is the answer still Y this week?
- What did I believe to be true in the past that turned out not to be true?
- Among those of my past beliefs that turned out to be mistaken, is there any discernable pattern?
- Which cognitive biases have affected my judgment in the past?
- Which cognitive biases might at this moment be affecting my judgment?
- Among the cognitive biases that affected my judgment in the past, is there any discernible pattern?
- What questions would have been useful to ask in the past if only I had asked them?
- How do we know that we've included all the risks (all the expenses, all the revenue, all the …) that we needed to include?
- What am I assuming that I'm unaware I'm assuming?
- Why am I asking question X?
- How do I know what I know about X?
- Why do I not know the answer to question X? What missing pieces would let me find that answer?
- What am I not asking questions about?
- I know that solution S is a solution to Problem P, but how do I know that there isn't a better solution?
- Have I confirmed that this problem is my problem to solve?
- How do I know that this problem is my problem to solve?
- How do I know that solving this problem is necessary?
- How much is the solution to this problem worth?
- How much will solving this problem cost?
- If X worked so well in situation S, why is X not working in situation S'?
- If X and Y both worked well in situation S, why is X working in S' while Y isn't working at all in S'?
- If X always produces Y in situation S, and Y always produces Z in situation S, why doesn't X produce Z in situation S?
- If Person A works well with Person B, and Person C works well with Person B, why can't Person A work well with Person C?
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Figuring Out What to Do First
- Whether we belong to a small project team or to an executive team, we have limited resources and seemingly
unlimited problems to deal with. How do we decide which problems are important? How do we decide where
to focus our attention first?
- We Are All People
- When a team works to solve a problem, it is the people of that team who do the work. Remembering that
we're all people — and all different people — is an important key to success.
- Problem Not-Solving
- Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive,
some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
- New Ideas: Experimentation
- In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These
experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
- Rationalizing Creativity at Work: I
- Much of the work of modern organizations requires creative thinking. But financial and schedule pressures
can cause us to adopt processes that unexpectedly and paradoxically suppress creativity, thereby increasing
costs and stretching schedules. What are the properties of effective approaches?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.