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When to ask the Right Question

Jeff Hough on Mar 28, 2013 2:22:00 PM

question markA young bride, cooking a holiday meal for her family, paused when she began cutting the ends off the ham to prepare it for the oven. She turned to her mother and asked why they cut the ends off the ham, to which her mother replied that she did not know. Unsatisfied, she set off to ask her grandmother, because that is where her mother learned the “secret”. She discovered the reason Grandma cut the ends off her hams was to make them fit in the pan!

We often face limited time constraints and information when making decisions. While going through the decision making process, we rely on experience to reach our conclusions. Relying on history can cause problems. “We have always done it this way” permeates our thought processes, when in reality we should be thinking, “Why?”

Humans are good at problem solving; in fact, we thrive on trying to find solutions even to the most minute of issues. In a recent article, Mark Shead pointed out that to make airlines safer, the TSA is trying to keep “bad stuff” off airplanes, but allows “bad” people to board airliners freely. I pondered this theory while trying to solve one of those “simple” brainteasers that required me to change the direction of a shape by moving only three pieces. As I stared at the puzzle, I kept reminding myself that the solution had to be simple and that I just had to ask the right question for the solution to present itself.

Five minutes and about 50 questions into the puzzle, I still had not discovered the solution. Finally it hit me that I was asking the wrong questions! As soon as I shifted my focus from the outside of the shape and began to look at the inside of the shape, the solution jumped out at me and I solved the puzzle in a matter of seconds. I realized that the preconceived notions I brought to the puzzle had burdened me and it was those notions that were keeping me from the correct solution.

The key to making great decisions lies in reviewing data and asking the right questions. For example, in 1930 Nestle Chocolate Company noticed a large spike in sales in one small Massachusetts town. After drilling down through the information, they discovered that a small inn owner was buying chocolate bars to chop up and put in the cookies she gave to her guests. Her guests loved the cookies and were constantly asking for the recipe. When Nestle approached her for the recipe, she agreed on the condition that she receive a lifetime supply of chocolate. Because of the demand for chocolate “chips”, the company developed the Toll House Morsels in 1939 and included Ruth’s recipe on the back of the package.

The best solutions to problems are not those that come from knee jerk reactions. I have long held that decisions based on emotions are rarely right. In 2010, Shirley Sherrod (then Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture), facing pressure from various government agencies and media outlets, resigned because of perceived racist comments made during a speech. Later, after examining the full context of her speech, it became clear that she was speaking out against racism and the White House offered her a new position as an apology.


The best questions to ask are constructive ones. Constructive questions force push mowerus to think in terms of solutions—not just answers. Asking the question, “What do we do well?” rather than “How could we do this better?” yields vastly different answers. The latter question brings about innovation and helps push past preconceived notions and stock answers. Next time you begin to “throw" the baby out with the bath water”, stop and ask a few different questions. There might be a better way to water the lawn


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