A Better Framework to Ask Problem Solving Questions

5 minute read

We all sat in a half-circle listening to Julie tell us what was going on. Everyone present was in a small team committed to helping each other work through issues, and she had a tough nut to crack. After Julie finished describing the situation, it was up to us to ask questions and help uncover additional aspects. Several team members started asking about some key things that Julie had accidentally left out. Then there was a clear split between questions that really moved the conversation and those that didn’t. As we talked, I realized there was a better framework to ask problem-solving questions. 

It’s important to start off with a key distinction. We were asking questions to help Julie define the situation and then help HER think about the problem differently. We weren’t providing recommendations at that point.  

This is important to note since a lot of people will ask questions that are really recommendations. You’ve heard them all your life… ”Have you done X?” “Are you going to do Y?” “What do you think about Z?” These are really suggestions that are being indirectly offered as questions. It’s a poor way to make a recommendation. 

Advancing Questions™

At Wingspan, we call Advancing Questions™ the “power tool” that leaders bring.  Good questions mean being intentional with a purpose and getting others to talk about what THEY see, not talking about what the leader sees.

The reason problem-solving questions are such an important skill is that there is a distinct difference between solving a problem FOR someone and solving a problem WITH someone.

When you solve a problem FOR someone, you provide them an answer and they go on their way, satisfied for the moment.

When you solve a problem WITH someone, you’re helping THEM solve THEIR problem. The big distinction is who is doing the heavy lifting, and learning along the way. In the “with” scenario, you’re helping the other person create a stronger process for working through the current challenge, and learn better questions they can ask themselves – and others – later. This is the definition of “empowering” that so many leaders and team members say they want. If a leader wants to help their team members the most, focus on solving problems with them.

So then…what does a better framework for problem-solving questions look like? Here’s a way to help yourself and your team go further. This framework will help them come up with more of the answer.

Level 1: Understand This Situation

This is where most people start – and unfortunately stop – asking questions. These questions begin with the fundamentals…what happened, when, who was involved, where, how often does this happen, etc. These are usually the obvious questions. They can be really important, and help unlock key information. 

The “trap” here is that it’s easy to ask more and more of these questions. And often the additional answers don’t substantially change anyone’s understanding. Even worse, they won’t solve the problem. 

When you get past the basic questions, start to get into impact questions around the situation, like:

These can help frame the effects and seriousness of the problem, which can shine more light on how important it is to solve the problem.

Level 2: Help THEM solve this problem

Like I mentioned above, this is where most people will start to offer suggestions. That can be helpful, though hold off for now. If your “Good Idea Fairy” comes flying out, you aren’t giving the other person a chance to solve it, so keep her bottled up for now!

Some good starting points for Level 2 Questions are around what they are thinking. That could sound like:

You won’t be sure where these will go. That’s OK since the point is to help the person think differently about the situation and access additional ideas. You’re not guiding towards an answer, rather you’re helping them find their answer. That’s the goal of these…prompt the person who knows the problem best to think about it differently because they probably have the answer and just don’t realize it.

Level 3: Help Them Solve Future Problems

It’s rare in life that we get a challenge that truly stands on its own. Usually what we’re solving is a variation of something that has come before or something that will manifest itself later. Going to Level 3 Questions helps people think beyond the current solution. Examples of that could sound like:

Like Level 2 questions, this helps them reframe how they are thinking about this problem by challenging them to look forwards or backward in time, or scaling out from that one situation. When you’re wrestling with something, it can be hard to look past it and see anything else. You will face similar challenges again and again because you help create your own challenges without realizing them. 

I’ve asked a lot of questions in my life…and plenty that didn’t help. Working with Cathy and our leaders has helped refine how I think about questions, and to be more purposeful. Play with this approach, recognize how you can use more powerful tools, and help people differently than you have in the past.