Finding Better Solutions

7 March 2018

While reading the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, I came upon an article entitled “Better Brainstorming,” by Hal Gregerson, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center.

About 20 years ago, Mr. Gregerson was frustrated during a brainstorming session in corporate America, and the lack of solutions which came out of that session. To change the dynamics, Mr. Gregerson asked his team for questions about the issue at hand, rather than answers. The session immediately came alive with energy, and the questions transformed the session into a highly productive one, ultimately resulting in dynamic answers to the problem at hand.

In educational settings, students are often asked questions by their instructors, and must come up with answers. Many times, they will not volunteer to answer such questions, for fear of being judged harshly on their answers, but will speak up when asked for questions. So, not only can questions provide a transformative approach to solving a problem, but, for students, asking them to provide questions rather than answers provides an opportunity for them to feel a part of the process toward a real solution.

Mr. Gregerson’s new brainstorming process is:

• Identify an issue, a problem, an opportunity – preferably one that “makes your heart beat faster.”

• Ask a few people you trust to sit-in and assist you. Try including at least a one person with no direct experience of the topic, and whose approach or worldview differs from your own.

• Describe the issue, briefly, to the participants in your problem-solving group.

• Set ground rules – questions only, no answers, and no explanations. Respect for everyone involved, and their viewpoints, is mandatory.

• Open the floor for about 3 to 4 minutes, and ask the participants for questions on how to address the issue. Write down each question, verbatim, and have the participants check your notes at the end of the discussion.

• Review the questions which arose during the strategy session. Have your feelings about the topic changed as a result?

• Lastly, take a fresh look at the issue in light of these questions, and then get to work on resolving it.

We believe that listening is imperative in coming up with the best solutions. When we ask another person a well-thought-out question from a different angle than that person has considered, we learn more about them and the issue at hand than if we look for a “one-size-fits-all” answer. One size does not fit all; asking transformative questions can be invaluable in tailoring a unique solution to unique needs.

Originally published 7 March 2018 in Harvard Business Review, March/April 2018