The Art of the Question

Twenty-five years ago, I tried to coach adult college students to seek and solve problems using the classic Deming PDCA Circle. In classrooms, students were unused to identifying their own problems rather than having them pre-defined. The first time through this exercise, over half did not reflect on a problem to seek root cause. Instead, they went shopping for a gizmo, a program, or a recipe to fix the problem – a quick-fix mentality.

After three exercises, a majority of students were coming around, but rigorous problem solving was certainly far from habitual. Some regarded probing for causes – or seeking the “real problem” – as a waste of time. Why do all that? Just try something. This learning experience affected their would-be instructor more than the students.

Today many companies resolve operational problems using variations of PDCA to test and analyze, seeking causes. Most problem solving is of this type – operational. It may be vexing, but tame, because continuous improvement of an established system doesn’t challenge its basic purpose. We stick to what and how-to questions.

However, if our basic purpose is questioned, that’s effectiveness rather than efficiency. Our objective is unclear, doubted, or outdated. People are in potential conflict because they see issues as win/lose. And external parties are affected, a big one being the environment. For this, operational PDCA needs major augmentation, to say the least.

We need Regenerative Problem Solving. You can call it “Discontinuous improvement,” opening a whole new dimension for PDCA compared with the limited context in which it is commonly applied. If the direction we are heading is ineffective, becoming more efficient going that way is of dubious value.  Questions probing effectiveness must dig deeply into basic purposes and motivations. Ask: Who. Why. How. What. In that priority.

  1. Who or what is affected, positively or negatively. These “whos” are often called stakeholders. Some “whos” are mute, like nature; somebody has to speak for them.
  2. Why should anything be done? (We can stare at our belly buttons for a lifetime questioning our own existence. Think deeply, but avoid philosophical paralysis.)
  3. How? If there is a reason to exist, or to do anything, what ethical guidance should we follow to support that reason? (Ethics = gut level rules of behavior.)
  4. What? Given all that, what should we do? We’re finally ready for detailed how-to.

When contemplating such deep change, ask Transformative Questions to challenge prior beliefs. (Examples presume questioning improvement of health in a community.)

What assumptions and beliefs bias how we frame the problem? (What do we define or assume “good health” to be?)
What unmet real needs or issues are masked by how we frame a problem – by our perspective of it? (Can we probe beyond considering the curative health care system – effects of social status, education, community, life habits, etc.)
How can we involve stakeholders in defining the problem area, and in seeking solutions that work for them. (Everybody is a stakeholder in health issues.)
What can we learn about nature’s processes so that we keep or create regenerative ecosystems? (How is our health connected to ecosystem health, or to exposure to unsanitary or toxic environments?)
Keep reflecting over a wide context. Are we asking the right questions, or are we too focused – going down a “rabbit hole”? (For example, veer off on alternative medicine or special diets as “the answer” to all health issues.)
Long term questions. How might this play out in 1-200 years? (Will present practices – of many different kinds – affect the health of future generations?)
What is the role of human psychology in the problems or in solutions? (To what extent can we eliminate bad health habits?)
How do we stay flexible and keep learning from both systemic feedback and from unexpected occurrences? (New hazards or epidemics can “come out of the blue;” how can we prepare to cope?

The questions are adapted from Designing Regenerative Cultures, by Daniel Christian Wahl, Chapter 2.

This series of questions covers a big gamut, bigger than we can usually bring to mind when actually addressing a wicked, strategic issue, when we must talk about subjects and beliefs that we would usually rather avoid. In the short term, we keep more friends staying quiet, but eventually somebody has to pick up the cans that we silently kick down the road.

In practice, we only learn to ask deeper questions by experience asking them, just like the students jolted out of their mental ruts by PDCA exercises. Likewise, Regenerative Problem Solving does not come naturally without active practice. Nobody can pretend to be an expert wading into every messy, complex problem. You are interacting with people, imperfectly predictable beings with insights and biases of their own. It’s more art than any by-the-numbers procedure.

But we can practice overcoming our trepidation and become better and better artists.

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