Overcoming the Unsolvable Problem

A simple framework to overcome those tricky questions

Have you ever had someone ask you a question that just doesn’t seem to have a sound solution? It could be a loaded question. It also could be that the perspective from which the question is being asked simply makes it an unpleasant pursuit. Whatever the case, resistance may be futile.

Not to say questions should always be easy to answer. There are definitely some difficult questions that need to be solved. What I’d like to propose is a method to forming a path to least resistance. I would compare this to taking the most direct, yet congested route during rush hour versus driving through a series of alleyways to reach the same location.

Clay Shirky’s talk about information overload at Web 2.0 Expo NY

Clay Shirky took the issue of information overload and looked at it from a different perspective. His take was to improve our filters. The advent of Web 2.0 was to have everyone curate, create, and disseminate information. Addressing the problem as though it was about slowing content generation would be a step backward in our gains as a society. Imagine if legislation was created to add friction to content producers. What if our software would restrict our output.

So it’s a filtering problem, not one of information overload.

Loaded questions can also be smashed using this technique. Let’s say you’re asked how apples can be used to make a milkshake. If you’ve ever tried this, it doesn’t work well, but maybe you’ve been successful in such an endeavour. The reason this is loaded is because you’re restricted to a certain input and output. Reframing the question may require a step back. Question why the request as been made. By learning more about the goal, we may find that the goal is to make something drinkable.

Reframing the milkshake problem may result in new questions. Some examples:

  • What can be created using apples and milk?
  • Is it a good idea to combine apples and milk?
  • Can an apple be used to decorate a milkshake?
  • Would you like some milk or apple juice?

These newly framed questions result in a plethora of potential solutions. Reframing a problem is the key to unlocking innovation. Of course, learning about the intended outcome is just as important as the questions being asked. This works great for obtuse questions. That is, the questions where there shouldn’t be a single accepted solution.

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. — Albert Einstein

Asking the right question is more important than the answer. Take the novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. There’s a machine called Deep Thought. It was created to answer the ‘ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything.’ After some 7-million years of processing, the answer output was 42. So the society that waited for the answer needed to create a more explicit question and have the machine run again.

Every obtuse question has a number of variables embedded within it. You can change time, size, speed, focal point, inputs, outputs, power, and so on. Maybe you’re asked to handle a massive project. You could break it down into bite-size pieces and involve a team. It’s no longer such an undertaking. It’s become something quite manageable and achievable.

Go forth and question.