Get Unstuck: 4 Questions for Effective Organizational Problem-Solving

Leadership | Collaboration

Thirty years of research and practice has led me to a one-sentence conclusion that sums up my approach to organizational problem-solving: The questions people ask about situations they want to change reveal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. When our unquestioned assumptions immobilize us, struggling to find a better answer is not nearly as useful as working on asking a better question. To be more questionable is to be able to find a better question when you’re stuck for an answer.


Quicksand Questions 

I refer to questions that lure us into thinking traps as “quicksand questions.” With quicksand questions, the more we focus on answering the question, the more stuck we become. Let’s consider four categories of quicksand questions, questions that mislead us, limit our options, or create deadlocks because they inadvertently place blame.

Let’s take a look at four common types of quicksand questions.


Questions that assume a solution

How do we improve communication between line leaders and their support functions?

The question includes a point of view about how to respond to complaints about feeling left out and underutilized, but is a lack of communication really at the heart of the matter? Maybe line leaders feel overly regulated when they involve support functions so they intentionally work around them. A lot of unproductive work gets generated when people rush off to solve the wrong problem.


Questions that create a false dichotomy

Should we bring in someone from outside the company to head up the marketing department or promote someone from within?

Are those really the only two alternatives? What if we hire someone from the outside to become a chief of staff to support and mentor an internal hire that runs the department?


Questions that assume we must get others to change

How do we get our insurance agents to cross-sell our products?

When we accept a “get-them-to-change” framing of a dilemma, we end up thinking of people as automatons. Solving our problem becomes an exercise in figuring out the programming required to alter the behaviors we find troublesome.


Questions that are badly scoped

Too Narrow: How do we improve the trust scores on our engagement survey?

Too Broad: How do we improve trust around here?

The first question focuses our attention on the survey rather than the purpose of the survey. The second question gives us no place to start.

Building a better question is an exercise in thinking about context, systems, social networks, and user needs. You can find out more about using the Unstuck Minds Method to become more questionable here.

Getting stuck in the way we are thinking is like finding ourselves in quicksand; the harder we struggle to find an answer, the more stuck we become. When we learn to ask a better question, we not only restore momentum and confidence; but we also liberate ourselves from the thinking traps that isolate and divide us.


Rotman Management Magazine, the magazine of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, recently published their Fall 2019 issue with the theme, “The Secrets of the Best Leaders.” Jay contributed an article to the issue, “How to Cultivate an Unstuck Mind.” In it, he shared a secret about the relationship between the questions we ask and the thinking traps that keep us stuck. Jay used that article as inspiration when we asked him to give us some examples of what he means by questions that create thinking traps.


About Jay Cone

Jay Cone has spent the past 25 years focusing on leadership development, strategic thinking and innovation and is the founder of Unstuck Minds. Prior to joining Interaction Associates, Jay worked in the food service industry as a training manager, Human Resources director, and internal consultant. Jay is a thought leader for Interaction Associates’ work in teams, innovation and strategic thinking. Jay is a regular contributor to Saybrook University’s Rethinking Complexity blog. His articles on strategy and leadership development have appeared in Rotman Magazine, The Journal of Global Business and Organizational Excellence, Training Magazine, and The American Society for Training and Development's Best of Customer Service Training. Jay served on the editorial review committee for David Straus' book, How to Make Collaboration Work, and contributed a chapter on accountability to Leadership for Transformation, edited by JoAnn Danelo Barbour and Gill Robinson Hickman. Jay served for five years on the faculty of the Executive M.B.A. program at The University of Texas at Dallas, where he taught innovation and collaboration. Jay is conducting research and writing a dissertation on organizational strategy formation to complete his Ph.D. program in organizational systems. Jay's current consulting practice focuses on senior team facilitation, strategic thinking, leadership development, and innovation.