3 Questions That Will Solve Any Problem Creatively

by Yoram Solomon

It was once said that the solution to any problem lies in asking the right question. Here are three:

As a culture, we became so polarized that we tend to offer extreme solutions, entrench in them, and not give up an inch from our positions. This is apparent in the way Congress creates laws, these days. A 2015 MIT study showed that in 1973, in 1,070 roll call votes, there were 12,921 cross-party cooperative pairs (members of the opposite parties who voted the same way). In 2007, on the other hand, the number of votes went up 75%, while the number of cooperative pairs dropped 98.6% to only 181.

The reason is that when there is a problem, any problem, often we focus on debating, comparing, and arguing over several obvious solutions. Our solutions. It became more important to “win” an argument than to find the solution. To find really creative solutions, you must ask these three questions, in this order.

1. How?

How is this a problem? Is it really a problem? Why do we care? Often you will find that once you ask this question, you might realize that the issue at hand is actually not a problem, and therefore should not be solved. In my years in high-tech development, I remembered this definition: “A feature is a bug with seniority…” You might think of something as a problem, while others might see it as a benefit.

Before you attempt to solve a problem, first see if it’s really a problem. Not only to you, but also to others affected by it. Understanding what makes this a problem will also help you develop the criteria to compare and assess the possible solutions. If you determined that this is a real problem, move on to the second question. If not–you’re done!

2a, 2b, 2c, 2d, 2e. Why?

Why did/does it happen? What is the root cause of this problem? Use the “5 Whys” method, proposed by the Six-Sigma methodology. Watch this video by Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup).

You may not need to ask “Why” 5 times, but you will most likely have to ask it more than once. The problem in not asking “Why” enough times is that you might get to a symptom, but not really the cause.

You will then work to fix that symptom, but you would not really fix the problem. There is a story about a company that made toothpaste and had a problem when some of the toothpaste packages came out empty. They contracted the services of an expensive consulting firm, who modified the production line with a scale which, when it sensed a light package, would stop the line. The story goes on to describe how an employee had put a $20 fan before the scale such that empty packages would be blown off the production line before they reached the scale. While the story exemplifies how simple, creative solutions may be better, it doesn’t continue to suggest what you should have really done. Ask why some of the packages were empty. Keep asking “why” until you find the root cause. That’s the most effective way to solve the problem.

3. What?

What should you do to solve the problem? The first two questions would have helped you establish where you are (what is the root cause of the problem) and where you want to be (the negative outcome you want to avoid, along with the metric for it). Now it should be easier for you to brainstorm ideas to eliminate the root cause such that the negative outcome will disappear.

You may have to include another step in selecting among options: what are the boundaries for a good solution? Are budget, time, or any other resources limited? Determining the boundaries will help you select between several viable options. My advice to you is to actually set the boundaries after you identified the field of solutions. Just try to avoid bias when doing so (i.e., to define boundaries that will bias the selection to one solution). The way to achieve that: once all options are listed, compare them. As yourself how they are different.

The comparison will give you the dimensions (for example: time, cost, risk, how much of the problem does it solve, etc.). Once you have those–define the boundaries for a good solution (cost no more than X. Take no more than Y weeks, etc.)

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Dr. Yoram Solomon is an inventor, creativity researcher, coach, consultant, and trainer to large companies and employees. His Ph.D. examines why people are more creative in startup companies than in mature ones. Yoram was a professor of Technology and Industry Forecasting at the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, UT Dallas School of Management; is active in regional innovation and tech transfer; and is a speaker and author on predicting technology future and identifying opportunities for market disruption. Follow @yoram

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