Like magic… 5 Key questions to solving problems
Magic… The idea of magic has been around for a long time. Our ancestors used it for any phenomena that they could not explain but in this scientific era no-one believes in magic anymore. But still, it exists…
Don’t stop reading. I see your sceptical look! I hear you scoff! It’s true, I see magic almost every day. It’s in the things we do, the tools we apply and the results that we see. In a course on coaching the other day I encouraged the participants to apply John Whitmore’s Grow Model. One participant, Sam, was feeling hesitant because it would be the first time that they would be coaching anyone. “Just apply the model,” I assured them and opened breakout rooms.
Upon returning after 15 minutes, Sam exclaimed: “It was like magic! I just asked the questions in the model, and it worked!” Sam’s partner, Agatha agreed that it was a pretty good session. In the next round they had to switch roles and upon returning to the plenary, the feedback was even more enthusiastic. Sam said “In the first round I asked Agatha what she could do to turn the situation she was facing with her stakeholder into a win-win. And in this round, she asked me the same question. The magic was that even though I had asked her in the first round, the question never entered my mind in the second round until she asked it! It was brilliant!”
This comment led us into a discussion on whether there were “magic questions” that will work for any problem and situation. And the more I thought about it, the more I realise that there just might be. So, this is the list of my five magic questions and why they work.
- What is the real problem you need to solve?
In many of the coaching sessions I do, this question is pure gold. A coachee will start the discussion by talking about many different problems, and the more they talk, the more problems they come up with. Sometimes this becomes overwhelming – for the coachee and the coach! Forcing them to identify what the real problem is that you’re trying to solve focuses their thinking and compels them to critically evaluate the situation. And usually, they get to just that one critical problem that they really need to solve.
In some of the team meetings that I attended, I found that it’s easy to get distracted by everything that’s going wrong. The team then gets caught in a downward spiral between problems, solutions and ideas and it becomes confusing. Asking “What is the real problem we’re trying to solve?” is a great way to get everyone focused and ensures that their energy is spent on the correct issue.
- What will make this a win-win?
It was the day before Halloween. A primary school teacher wanted to buy pumpkins for her class to carve in a fun activity. The grocer had 16 pumpkins available, which was perfect because there were 16 kids in the class. However, he would agree to only sell her 15. No amount of cajoling would persuade him to sell all 16. That would mean that one poor kid would not have a pumpkin to carve. If the teacher had compromised, she might have left with the 15 pumpkins and made the best of the situation. But instead, she considered a win-win. “Why can you not sell me the 16th pumpkin?” she asked the grocer. “I need that for the seeds.” he replied. “I plant them in order to have pumpkins to sell next year.” Well, that changed the conversation completely! They took out the seeds from all 16 pumpkins, which means that it’s a win-win.
This story from Boaz Keysar from the Chicago Booth Business School clearly shows how compromise is a dirty word. So often we might think that it’s the best solution when, in fact, there might be a win-win available if only we would look for the opportunity. Asking “how could this be a win-win?” and looking at the problem from the perspective of each person’s interest, rather than their position, is a creative problem-solving technique.
- What are the obstacles and how can I remove them?
Very often I am flummoxed by people and their decisions. People do things – or don’t do them – that leave me wondering what they were thinking. (I’m sure you do, too, so don’t judge!). I had a conversation with a colleague where she confessed that she’s having trouble with a critical stakeholder. “I just cannot get him to do what I need him to do!” she complained. “Well,” I said, “what’s stopping him from doing it?” She gave me a wide-eyed look indicating that she had never considered that option. We talked about the obstacles in his way and how she can help remove them. It was a critical insight.
- Whose voice is not being heard?
I attended a team coaching workshop with the brilliant Prof Peter Hawkins. At one stage he put an empty chair in the middle of the room. Everyone stared at the chair, mystified. The chair, he explained, embodies the stakeholder whose voice is not being heard. It is this voice that, if it’s included in the conversation, can lead to the key to solving a problem. It could be the voice of future generations, or the “silent majority” or a critical role player that you have not considered. He recommended to always have an open seat in team meetings so that the presence of that silent voice is felt. And before solving a problem or taking the final decision, ask the crucial question about whose voice you should be listening to.
- If you know that the [positive opposite] was true, how would that change the situation?
This question, coined by Nancy Kline as the “incisive question” is true magic. In her 1999 book Time To Think she explains that this question can help unearth limiting assumptions. Assumptions are beliefs that we hold about the world or our situation and these could be true or untrue. Examining them is critical to reveal untrue assumptions that might restrict our ability to solve problems.
In a coaching session with a client, he mentioned that he found it difficult to speak up in meetings. He lamented that the team does not want to hear what he has to say. Because of his silence he worried that his impact and performance would be diminished. “What if you knew that they want to know what you’re thinking, how would you behave in team meetings?” I asked. His face lit up as he realised that his limiting assumption (they don’t want to know what he thinks) might be untrue. “That will change everything!” he exclaimed. Months later he had changed his behaviour was an engaged and productive team member.
The incisive question turns the negative limiting assumption into the positive opposite and then links it back to the goal. For example: “They don’t want to hear what I have to say, so I don’t speak up in meetings.” The incisive question will be “If you knew that they are interested in what you have to say (the positive opposite), how will that help you to speak up in meetings (the goal).” Try it. You’ll feel like you have to wave a magic wand theatrically in the air because it will feel like magic!
The world is complex and changing. There is much value in solving problems faster and better for teams, organisations and humans. Use these 5 questions and test them for yourself. If they work for you, please share them widely.
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