Executives routinely face vexing challenges and tough decisions—in a business culture that emphasizes action over reflection. But before you jump into action to solve any problem, you need to understand the context in which it is occurring.
There are three simple questions any leader should ask before tackling a problem: What? So what? Why? Together these questions offer a solid framework to define the problem:
What is about the present. It is objective and rooted in fact. It’s critical for a leader to have relevant information. Are our sales increasing or decreasing? Has the French government just passed a new law? But knowing “what” is not enough because we are drowning in information. According to a 2017 IBM report, 90% of the world’s data had been created in the last two years alone, and we produce more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. It’s not hard to find information that supports almost any point of view. And facts are often subject to organizational filters and cognitive biases.
So what has an eye to the future. The point here is to consider how the current situation matters. Some leaders will also ask what if, a question that looks to the future in a slightly different way. What are the likely consequences of our declining sales? What might happen if we don’t address the problem? Is solving this problem the best use of our time and resources?
Why looks to the past. This question can be fascinating, in part because it reveals core beliefs without the need for speculation. How did we get here? What assumptions did we make? Which political dynamics prompted the French government to pass that law? We all know philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Decisions are often better when we keep history—with all its ambiguity—firmly in mind.
To solve a problem, first understand it
Here’s the thing: What questions can be answered objectively, even if bias sometimes creeps in. Facts are still facts. But so what and why questions are almost entirely subjective. Computers can capture, store, and retrieve the what. Yet to really get a handle on so what and why, we need to engage with trusted colleagues. It’s a social activity.
Take a simple, subjective question: “Why was there a financial crisis in 2007?” I suspect even a small group of moderately informed professionals would have a hard time reaching consensus. One could list more than a dozen factors that almost certainly played a role, including housing policy, credit ratings, regulation, fraud, consumer behavior, lending standards, financial innovation, mispricing of risk, fiscal and monetary policy, globalization, and information technology. The simple why question isn’t so simple after all.
Moreover, we all bring our conscious and unconscious biases and assumptions to subjective questions. If we understand how biases shape the way we interpret past events, we can start to understand how those same biases might influence the way we think about the future.
To be clear, I’m not advocating endless conversation and analysis paralysis. This is not about navel-gazing or devoting precious time to pushing the fog around. Most subjective questions cannot—and should not—be answered with certainty. Action and experimentation are often the only ways to understand how a complex ecosystem will behave in the real world.
But it’s a fool’s errand to start solving a problem you don’t understand. When the right people grapple with the right questions—to better understand the past and imagine the future—their efforts will often reveal insights that help to shape the way they define the problem. These three simple questions will help.
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