There Are No Problems Worth Solving — Only Questions Worth Asking

What do we lose by seeking and tackling problems worth solving? Why? What is a better approach to closing gaps between the world we have and the world we want? This article’s title was almost, “Questions Worth Asking and How to Choose Among Them.” It’s a good title. Delivering on that title is easy. But we’re going to do something hard: tamper with sacred design language and see practical impacts from pursuing questions worth asking.

“Solving” is a troublesome word. Puzzles and enigmas make humans tense. How we resolve that tension regularly determines our success and, sometimes, our survival. Giving up releases the tension, but can also produce suboptimal outcomes — like becoming something’s lunch. Transitioning from solving to solved is another, better, way to release the tension. Either way, mentally, we’re done with that puzzle or problem. Our attention is free to linger elsewhere and we stop thinking about that problem.

Instead of “solving,” substitute, “responding.” Now we’re talking about “problems worth a response.” While that sounds just like a summer blockbuster we’d all pay to not see, the distinction makes a huge difference.

Responding captures what we do all day every day. Coffee spilled on a new shirt? We respond. Insulted? Respond. Wishing this author would hurry things along? Respond. The world offers us, in every moment, opportunities to respond; it offers chances to choose what we will do when the world does what it does. The difference between response and reaction is like the difference between being the rider and being ridden. Both ways involve travel. Responding offers a lot more say in the destination. When we respond, we consider responses and probable outcomes then choose based on the outcomes we want.

More trouble: the word “problem.” Designers ask one question in a thousand ways: What problem are you trying to solve? Problems are just gaps between the world we have and the world we want. My local coffee shop stopped selling my Saturday apple fritter treat. Big problem, right? But what kind? Was the problem finding a replacement treat, the broken ritual, the treat’s role in helping me eat well the rest of the week, or something else?

Until we know what question or questions the problem is asking, the problem does not invite action. Asking a question like, “How might we create a family ritual to kick off the weekend?” turns the problem into a space that invites investigation and experimentation. Finding the question or questions in the problem is the first step of bridging the gap.

Now, we’re pushing “Problems worth a response,” toward “questions worth a response.” Questions have particular responses: answers. So, this last substitution leaves us with “questions worth answering.”

“Worth” is doing the hard work in “questions worth answering.” Is it worth it? Is closing the gap worth time we will never get back? Is the world we want worth what it will cost us to get there? Worth is about what we, our organization, or the world, stand to gain if we succeed. There is also another dimension to worth here — change. How uncertain is the world? How much might it change? All of us, the world, the question, and how they all relate are going to change by the time we have a response. Part of the worth means finding value in struggling to respond well as the world changes.

“Problems worth solving” are often mentioned in the context of “wicked problems.” A wicked problem is a special gap between the world you have and the world you want. A complex adaptive system is optimized for whatever outcomes it’s currently producing and works to maintain that optimization. When those outcomes create all or part of our, or a societal, gap between worlds, that’s a wicked problem. These are problems worth solving, but what we’re concerned with here is what is a problem worth being solved by you. Or rather, what is a question worth being answered by you.

When good luck times hard work equals having choices among questions worth answering, we have to develop good ways to choose. Here are four things to consider when deciding if a question is worth being answered by you — learning, the spend, power-ups, and seedlings.

Learning — How will my efforts help me develop my learning system and make me a better learner? How might what I learn along the way complement and test my knowledge? How might I help others learn? (Wait, you don’t have a learning system? Build one now.)

Power-ups — How might my efforts enhance my existing skills or develop new ones? How might the journey help me connect skills in new ways? How might this work help me develop my innovation abilities? How might the journey do the same for my team or organization?

Seedlings — What might I create while doing the work that has value to me in other contexts? How might I connect to people or systems that help me learn, power up skills, or encounter new challenges? How might my choice open opportunities for others?

The Spend — Are my efforts more valuable than the cash, time, attention, reputation, etc. they will cost me? What about my opportunity costs (especially, alternate learning, power-ups, and seedlings)? What benefits will I or others retain even if my efforts fail?

These questions are all part of what it means to create and ask like a designer. Some might suggest adding revenue or impact to the list. Those aspects are included in the world we want to create. Answering a worthy question closes the gap between that desired world and the world we have. If we were choosing based on the problem embodied in the question alone, a revenue or impact approach might make sense.

Remember, we’re not identifying which questions are worth answering by some theoretical someone. We’re working with a way to choose which question is worth being answered by you. That answer lies with how your potential learning, power-ups, and seedlings exceed the spend, and how they might transform you into someone better prepared for your next problem worth solving question worth answering.

I’ve created an Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool to help you choose your next question worth answering. Download it here. Use it to evaluate a single question or multiple questions. You can also use the same questions to explore when a question is worth being answered by your organization. If you’re working in a team, ask everyone to complete one on their own before you work on one together.

Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tool

Ask Like a Designer Thinking Tools make it easy to apply what you learn. Download the Thinking Tool for this article.

Learn With Us

Subscribe to Ask Like a Designer. Receive articles, podcast conversations, resources, tips, tools, templates, workshop and event information, and more to help you create and perform.

Innovation Webinar

Innovation Smart Start Webinar — Get Better Innovation Outcomes by Taking Your Project Launches from Frantic to Focused in these 4 Steps