Ask the right question

Every problem has a solution. What separates the people that find the solutions from those that get hopelessly stuck is simple: asking the right questions.

Before rushing towards a solution… pause. Take a breath and ask yourself; what is it I have to solve? Every problem can be redefined and every problem should be redefined. Look at what you’re faced with. Can you rephrase your challenge?

When you rephrase the problem, different solutions appear. Even the slightest change in the definition of your problem can lead to vastly different solutions. Compare the question ‘How can I do all this work before next month?’ to ‘How can I get all this work done before next month?’ The first question will steer you towards solutions like working longer hours, working weekends, cancelling time-consuming parties or simply working more efficiently. The second question, however, might lead you to involve other people to get the work done together. Perhaps you need to outsource the non-essentials to India, perhaps you need to hire an assistant or maybe another department has to be involved.

Let’s look at some real life examples of redefining a challenge:

Follow the rain
In 1954 the first commercial television network in the UK saw the light of day. The broadcasting rights per region were being auctioned. Many parties wanted in on the action and most of them employed analysts to find out what were the wealthiest regions. They understandably assumed that the wealthiest regions would generate the highest advertisement revenues. They asked themselves: ‘How do we get the broadcasting rights for the wealthiest regions?’ One man had a different approach. Sidney Bernstein reasoned that he should probably focus on the regions where people spent the most time actually watching TV. Therefore, his question was: ‘How do I get the broadcasting rights of the regions where people watch TV the most?’ This led him to a different approach. Instead of focussing on the wealthiest regions, he bid on the WETTEST regions. Broadcasting in the rainy North of the UK proved to be a good decision and Granada Television eventually became one of the most successful British production companies in history.

Saving ink
We all know that ink is costly. In many offices employees are strongly advised to cut down on their printing habits. The question many companies ask themselves is ‘How can we bring back the number of printed pages?’ However, there are many ways of redefining this challenge. What if you would ask yourself ‘How can we save ink?’ This is exactly the challenge that Alexander Kraaij took on. He developed ‘Ecofont’, a font specially designed to save on printer ink. The font has minuscule holes in every character that are invisible to the naked eye. Yet remarkably, using this font saves up to 28% in ink consumption.

Treat them like babies
The last example I’ll give you is the remarkable story of the sheriff of Duval County, Florida. The police chief was faced with a troubling occurrence. During spring break, college students would visit the coast and get drunk. The students would cause all sorts of trouble, and traditional approach did not seem to stop them. Therefore the police asked themselves ‘How can we punish these youngsters more severely?’ It was decided that the unruly students would be transferred to a county jail. Unfortunately, this made things even worse. When the students got out the next day, they went home and bragged to their friends about how tough they were. After all, they had done jail time. After noticing this, Sheriff Dale Carson decided to approach the problem differently. He redefined the challenge and asked himself ‘How can we embarrass these students for breaking the law?’ His solution was as simple as it was effective. “Since they were acting like babies, we treated them like babies,” said the sheriff. Instead of feeding the inmates water and bread, the sheriff decided to feed them baby food. The news of the new policy spread fast and suddenly it was no longer ‘cool’ to tell your friends you had been jailed. One single day of serving baby food was enough to put a stop to the unrest.

A similar approach has been repeated in Colombia to battle traffic violations.

What is your biggest challenge? And how might you rephrase it? Let me know in the comment box below. Who knows what innovative approaches we can come up with together.

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