The Problem You Solve Depends Mightily on the Questions You Ask

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At your last planning meeting, were you confronted with any of these questions:

How can we improve our sales productivity?
What will enable us to make better hiring decisions?
Can we reduce costs without impacting customer service?
How can we rid the world of debilitating poverty and disease?

Venture capitalist Jacqueline Novogratz has tackled all of these, which she described in her book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Through trial and error, she has become skilled at recognizing innovations and projects that portend desired outcomes. Her success results partly from framing problems with the right questions.



She writes, “So often we ask ourselves the wrong question. When it comes to a disease like malaria, the question should not be whether bed nets (to protect people from mosquitoes) are sold or given away free. Both distribution methods have their place in a broader attack on the disease. The question instead is, ‘What does it take to eradicate malaria?’ It’s not ‘either-or,’ but rather ‘both-and.'” She continued, “I have been invited numerous times to sit on panels focused on determining whether water is a human right or its ownership should be privatized. Again, the question is wrong. People need water to live, and there is no better intervention to improve health on a global scale than bringing safe, affordable water to as many people as possible.”

Fee vs. free? Human right vs. privately owned? Why do people couple vexing problems to progress-inhibiting conundrums? Ms. Novogratz offers an explanation. “What also makes the process of growing solutions to poverty complex is the noise we hear in the media and among thought leaders who believe their way is the only way. They suffer from a paucity of listening skills—just at the time when listening has never been more important.” Ouch. Sound like anyone you know?

Every day, I read questions on LinkedIn discussion boards and in blogs that similarly obfuscate greater problems that must be solved. Here’s a recent sampling of popular questions, followed by my interpretation of The Greater Challenge:

Popular question: “Why won’t salespeople make more cold calls?”
The Greater Challenge: “What are the most effective ways to engage prospective customers?”

Popular question: “Why are there so few great salespeople?”
The Greater Challenge: “Which personal behaviors create business value, and how can organizations identify and nurture them?”

Popular question: “When is a customer more important than revenue?”
The Greater Challenge: “What outcomes do our customers value?”

Popular question: “How soon will the Internet turn your salespeople into dinosaurs?”
The Greater Challenge: “How will your sales strategy adapt to technological, social, regulatory, competitive, and demographic forces?”

Popular question: What’s the ROI of Social Media?
The Greater Challenge: “Which initiatives can we begin that will bring the greatest value to our company today and in the future?”



Deciding whether a customer is more important than money presents a false choice. Understanding when your sales force will lack effective skills will give you a number, but so what? Debating the answers won’t bring anyone closer to solving the root issues.

Would we see fewer distracting questions if the costs of confusion included not only time and money, but life, poverty, and disease—as it does for Jacqueline Novogratz? I don’t know. But I’m glad she recognizes how important it is that questions match the problem to be solved. Shouldn’t all of us?

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