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 situation S' while Y isn't working at all in situation 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:
- Forward Backtracking
- The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed
when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's
one way to get a clue.
- New Ideas: Judging
- When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They
sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge
new ideas more effectively?
- The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
- Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both
enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps
to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.
- Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of
errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept
- Start Anywhere
- Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem
is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect
of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 27: On Working Breaks in Meetings
- When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
- And on October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
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