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Breakthrough Problem Solving: Techniques to transform your organization

This article is an excerpt from the book of the same name. For a free download of the first chapter go to


The success of an organization is directly correlated to its ability to identify, focus on and address its most important problems. All too often, however, the problems being addressed are not those which are most critical.

The opportunity cost of missing the critical questions or problems is significant. Therefore, whether at the beginning of a strategy process or working on everyday issues, focus must be put on identifying the problems which, when addressed, could have the biggest impact on the business. This is not the time to avoid a problem because it seems too difficult, but precisely the opportunity to tackle entrenched problems.

Once you are confident that a core problem has been identified, the next step is to express the problem in the form of a question.Questions prompt thinking and discovery and orientate us towards resolution. Defining the question is about providing clarity. Get it right, and you can succinctly get to the heart of the problem. This makes the crafting of the question serious business: the potential impact of the solution to your problem rests on the ability to have articulated the right question in the first place. 

Essential Components of a Great Question

• Captures the essence of the problem with precision

• Is as concise as possible without losing core meaning. Einstein advised “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

• Is not a closed question (yes/no answer) and contains no implicit assumptions about the solution. Ideas or hypotheses about the solution are valuable must not be part of the question

• Contains measurable component(s) which quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress,for example a revenue or profit target or a fundraising goal

• Specifies a timeframe during which desired results will be achieved

• Provides a defined scope for the solution. For example, is the scope of the solution company wide or limited to specific business units or geographies?

Getting The Best Question

Articulating the question to be addressed takes time. However, it is well worth the effort given that the right question forms the guiding post for all work to be done. From the outset, it is also an excellent way to create buy-in and alignment between stakeholders.

Unless you are genuinely working alone on a problem and there are no other stakeholders, then the critical first step here is to get all the key stakeholders around the table (or at least on a conference call).

Such a discussion often brings to light subtle, or not so subtle, differences of opinion which need to be on the table at the outset. I always insist on doing this with a client, as this initial process provides the foundation for all of the work we do together. Often these meetings are very instrumental and valuable for the client.

Tips For The Question Definition Meeting With Stakeholders

• Conduct either as a brainstorm, or review a shortlist of possible questions. It is important that everyone’s views on “What is the core question?” are heard 

• Have somebody who is not a stakeholder facilitate the discussion. That way, all stakeholders can focus on the discussion

• Listen to all suggestions, even if your impulse is to disagree. If you do this, I guarantee you’ll learn something about someone’s views you did not know before

• Pay attention to the specific words each person uses. The nuances are important. What can seem like small changes in wording, can really change the emphasis of the question

• Write all suggestions on a whiteboard or flipchart which all can see. Often it is helpful to go back and review earlier suggestions later in the meeting, and you want to be able to do so with the precision of specific words. The exercise of writing up each person’s suggestions also helps everyone to feel heard

• Work out differences. Be open where there are differences of opinion. This is often how the question can really open up and evolve into a better question

• Iterate and reiterate the question until everyone is comfortable. If you get stuck, take a break and come back to it. There often really is one question which is better than any other and you can usually feel whether your question is “right”

• Remember, the goal is alignment around a question and not full agreement. Every stakeholder does not have to agree with every word of the question. They only need to feel sufficiently comfortable to align behind it. If you aim for everyone to agree with every word, you risk compromising on words which ultimately dilute the question

Question Check List

  • One question which is written down and phrased as a question (not as a statement)
  • Captures the heart of the problem which you are solving for
  • Is not closed (yes/no only response)
  • Does not make assumptions as to the nature of the solution
  • Has measurable component(s)
  • Is time-bound
  • Scope is clear
  • Deliverables are specified
  • Key stakeholders have been engaged in developing or reviewing the question
  • Key stakeholders are aligned behind the question


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