Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 46;   November 13, 2019: Thirty Useful Questions

Thirty Useful Questions

by

Whether solving technical problems, creating plans, or puzzling through political tangles, asking the right questions can be the key to finding useful approaches. An example: What questions would I like to know the answers to?
Clouds at sea

Clouds at sea. Most of us cannot imagine any way of computing the shape and content of a cloud. Meteorologists use computers to do so, but even then, what they're actually doing is simulating the cloud formation.

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 problem
problems, 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?

One final question: if you were to add four questions to this list, what would they be? Go to top Top  Next issue: Paid-Time-Off Risks  Next Issue

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This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

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