In this modern age, we want the answers. And we want them NOW! After all, with answers comes acknowledgement, power and success. This seems self-evident in the business world. It’s also often true in the world of personal and spiritual growth, where many of us are seeking “The Answer” to our purpose and existence. Perhaps we were conditioned with this desire to have the answers through our years of traditional schooling. It was the role of the teacher to have the questions, and our role was to have the answer. We were supposed to know the answer, punished if we didn’t, rewarded if we did.
When I watch adults in community meetings, business meetings, political committees, and TV debates, the goal, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, is to have the right answer. He or she who expresses an answer with the most clarity and power is revered. It doesn’t matter so much what the question is. If the answer satisfies the emotional need of the audience, it is given our blessing, our attention, and our energy.
When we have an answer that satisfies us, the case if often closed. But what if the answer doesn’t address the source of the issue that inspired it? What then? I know of a nation not too far away that has been entertaining impassioned answers for decades, most of them pretty much the same, while a nearly intractable debt hole $60 trillion deep has gone virtually unnoticed. Perhaps a little more focus on the question is in order.
Questions tend to keep the case open for exploration. Yes I know, we like tying up loose ends. But if our answers simply cover the symptoms, which seems to have become our modern response to difficult problems, is the problem resolved or simply postponed?
I’ve also noticed that in order to be accepted, answers have to fit into our established value or belief system. A true solution to a problem, however prudent and validated, may fall flat if it isn’t politically or morally correct, or otherwise sexy to relevant stakeholders.
I came across a great example of this latter point in Lester Brown’s book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. The example had to do with solutions to global over-population, one the key source issues to many of our biggest problems, present and future. A highly validated solution is available, relatively simple and inexpensive. But, it’s kind of boring and doesn’t correlate well with many of our misguided moral imperatives.
The solution? School Lunch Programs. That this would work, or actually does work, isn’t intuitively obvious at first is it? However, many years of experience and research in third world countries, where over-population is the biggest problem, suggest conclusively that this works, and works well. But regrettably, it doesn’t sell well.
So, where in your organization, community, country, family, life, are you looking for answers in all the wrong places and perhaps overlooking the source issue that is right in front of you? That my friends, in my mind is the question. So how can we get around our answer addiction and begin to open ourselves to the right questions? Let’s have a look.
Look Beyond Symptoms to the Source
What is the question? We often are so quick to find an answer, we forget the question. This is the most basic starting point of any effective group effort. That is, clarifying what we are here to do. Write out the problem or question you’re exploring clearly so that everyone can see it and understand it.
Stop trying to look smart. Too often we don’t ask those very, very simple questions that are nagging us because they sound too silly, too simple, too stupid, or God forbid, reveal that we don’t understand! I’m talking about questions that a six-year old might ask. If we had six-year olds asking questions of our congressman and they were answered to everyone’s satisfaction, I’d wager that we’d be in a whole lot better shape right now.
Is there a deeper question. Rather than approach the problem like a western medical doctor, by treating symptoms, ask yourself this question: “Is the problem you’re solving a source issue or just a symptom of a bigger issue.” Dig deeper to the question underlying all questions, to the source of the issue, as best you can see it. Keep asking “Why?” every time you think you have the question nailed and see if you can do deeper. Now work on solving that one and you’ve increased your leverage substantially.
Take your time. OK, I know this is heresy. Who has time for anything these days! We’ve got to solve this issue now! Right, sure you do. Keep that attitude and you’re likely to be solving much bigger problems down the road that will sap untold mountains of additional time and resources that you don’t have if you aren’t addressing the real issue. Solving the source of a recurring problem is a time saver in the long run, sometimes even a lifesaver. Remember the Challenger Space Shuttle? The Bay of Pigs Invasion? The Iraq War?
Humble yourself. Invite experts, opponents, competitors, opposing party constituents, and others who have perspectives and beliefs systems that you find unattractive or distasteful. No one is smart enough to be wrong all of the time and you aren’t omniscient enough to know everything all of the time. So perspectives coming from those who see the world a lot differently are likely to offer some valuable perspectives. If you truly want to make serious progress on a problem, encourage those outside your box to challenge your thinking.
What are we missing? This question is for your group and for you dear reader, what am I missing on this list. Help me to see a bigger picture. Am I off my rocker or onto something here? I look forward to you rocking my world!
Where in your organization, community, country, family, life, are you looking for answers in all the wrong places and perhaps overlooking the source issue that is right in front of you? Which of the strategies above or beyond will you employ to help? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.