In the recent post, Problem solving & sandwich making, I took you through one technique for problem solving. Now, let's consider another technique which I call situational questioning. Situational questions are probably familiar to you. They're the who, what, when, where, why, and how (or similar) questions you can ask to gain information about a particular situation. Using questions like these gives your mind a trigger (or framework) for generating additional questions. Answers to these questions may lead you to a creative solution that wasn't initially obvious. Tasks are often problems in disguise. Thankfully, most of the problems you encounter aren't life-or-death, but when you practice solving them intelligently, you'll be better equipped to handle the more serious ones when they show up.
Consider a necessary, but not-so-enjoyable task you have, like mowing the lawn. Let's say you have a yard that takes an hour to mow and a half-hour to both prepare to mow (get into your mowing clothes) and finish (showering, putting the lawnmower away, etc.). It's important to pay attention to things that come right before and right after the "main" activity (as well as maintenance activities that don't happen near the "main" activity at all). These tasks sometimes take longer than the activity itself, but are necessary for the "main" activity to occur from start to finish. Having a full picture of the task at hand is a good first step to exploring the problem deeply.
Exploring The Activity/Problem in Depth
Now, take a moment to explore the details on a deeper level. What sort of lawnmower are you using? How old is it? What clothes are you wearing? Are these clothes always the same? Does your grass always grow at the same rate? These kinds of questions are easy to come up with and help you identify the assumptions behind the activity. Continuing this train of thought gives you a chance to come up with quite a few questions about parts of the task. Don't be afraid to think about simple questions, they often lead to better ones in short order. As the volume of questions you entertain gets larger, you'll have an easier time homing in on the important ones.
Exploring the "who" question would conjure up questions of delegation. Currently you cut the grass, but perhaps it's time to teach your child to mow. Maybe it would be best to share the responsibility with your partner. Of course, you could also hire it out professionally, to a neighborhood kid or a lawn-care business. The potential for delegation doesn't stop there. Maybe you could trade chores with a neighbor and do both yards every odd week, while your neighbor takes the even weeks. Maybe the hottest months are the worst; what if you hired it out only for July and August? As you begin to pick apart the problem, you can find solutions that maximize what you care about most while minimizing the aspects that are unimportant to you.
Sometimes the questions will overlap in certain ways, like the consideration of "who" will mow "when". In the example of hiring someone in the hotter months, from the previous paragraph, you were answering two questions at once. Before straying too far, though, it's also useful to think of them in isolation. Your "when" question could take the form of when during the day (morning or evening) or week (weekday or weekend). It's often helpful to see the task in relation to other activities as well. You could mow the lawn after you came back from a round of golf. The benefit here is getting a chance to extend something enjoyable (being outdoors) with one that needs to get done. The possibilities here are endless and using situational questions as a starting point can keep you from getting stuck.
Continuing the Thought Exercise
To continue the exercise (and provide some more, direct examples), let's think about the remaining questions. "What" questions could cause you to consider the type of grass you have or even the layout of your outdoor space. Perhaps installing a new deck will reduce the amount you need to mow and give you a fun place to relax during the nice-weather months. "Where" questions might cause you to consider a move to an apartment or to a climate where mowing is unnecessary. "Why" questions could make you realize that maintaining a high-quality lawn is a fun hobby and you should actually be spending more time or money on the activity. "How" questions may cause you to buy a new lawnmower to make it more enjoyable or faster. Each of the questions has their place in the exercise and each can give you a new perspective on the problem.
As you can see, adding situational questioning to your toolshed can help you turn problems upside-down and inside-out. By examining a problem in different ways you get closer to its essence, the fundamental parts that make it what it is. This creative exploration can lead to better solutions or the realization that the problem isn't that much of a problem at all. With techniques like this, movement creates momentum, so just getting started may cause you to get what you need to move forward. And that's what it's all about: moving intelligently toward a better way of doing what we need and want to do!
Cultivating your problem solving skills will continue to serve you throughout your life. Add your name to the Plant mailing list to get more tips, techniques, and ideas delivered straight to your inbox!