Brainstorming Questions Instead of Answers


People often fail to solve problems not because the solution was bad, but because they solved the wrong problem.

One of the things I do when approaching new problems is ask whether we’re asking the right question.

Here’s a basic methodology for doing this:

  1. When you are first asked to solve a problem, ask everyone to slow down and pause

  2. Write the problem down somewhere visible to everyone

  3. Put yourself in the position of the person that asked the question, and try to determine what they were facing when they asked it

  4. Try to figure out if they made a scoping mistake when they asked the question, i.e. if they really should have asked something else (which is often the case)

  5. Have the group come up with a list of alternative questions, any of which could be bigger or smaller in scale than the original

  6. Select the question or problem to work on

  7. Ensure that solving this problem will in fact solve the original spirit of the question


A team might be asked to do the following:

Give me a list of the times we missed SLA on shipping a product?

And that might be easy enough. But perhaps what they’re really looking for is why we’re missing SLAs.

So we brainstorm and change the question to:

What are the common attributes present when we miss SLAs?

And from there we create a spreadsheet of missed SLAs along with 20 fields of information about each order, such as time of day, the person who processed the order, the day of the week, the type of package, etc.

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From there we notice that it’s always Friday afternoons that we miss SLA, and we also notice that it’s one particular team that’s working that shift.

So what we return with is the following:

  1. Here are the missed SLA times

  2. Here are the patterns we noticed

  3. We think this is the problem

  4. We think this is a possible solution

  5. Here’s our recommendation


Don’t just answer arbitrary questions.

Instead, think about what the person asking is getting at, i.e. what’s actually needed.

Provide that instead.

Hint: It’s usually a recommendation for how to fix the problem that the question is pointing to.


  1. Keep in mind that this technique applies more the higher up in an organization that you are, and the more authority and autonomy that you have. If you are new to a position or career, it’s generally not a good idea to re-interpret what is asked of you. Maybe provide the answer to the original question first, and ease into this as you develop trust.

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