Secrets of the question space

Problem-solving

July 27, 2022

Problems are like onions: they have layers and need to be peeled back. 

Questions are a way for us to understand a problem and get to the bottom of it. However, many of us don't ask effective questions, making it difficult to create a question space and start discussions. 

Understanding the question space begins with accepting that questions don't live in a vacuum—they exist within a business environment. Once we embrace this, we can bring stakeholders into the discussion and view problems from different angles to help solve them. 

This piece will take a closer look at how questions can influence discussions and fill gaps in the decision-making process to get a better outcome. 

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

What is the question space?

Preparation for solving a core question starts with understanding the question space.

This business environment is different in space, and understanding how questions fit in is key to solving our most pressing problems. The question space is made up of four parts:

  1. Context. What has happened before, and what has happened now related to the core question?
  2. Scope. Define the limits of the sense of solutions to consider. What is not part of the question? What can't be left alone?
  3. Success criteria. How will you know the core question has been solved? It's best to define it with success criteria.
  4. Stakeholders. Your company people and external partners, contractors, or media that are involved in the core question. 

A question space is (arguably) the most important early stage of problem-solving. 

Asking these four questions help map out and visualize a core question and get specific, tangible answers around its scope and success. It also gives your team space to talk about (and ultimately agree on) what the core question is, which can kickstart debates to solve a problem from all angles. 

The result of embracing the question space is it creates an environment for figuring out the root of a problem. 

Supercharge your question space: Build your own worksheets

Your question space can be unlocked with the right process. 

Build your own question space worksheet using the four steps we just discussed:

  1. Context
    Start with understanding the context of a problem by reaching out to stakeholders and hearing their point of view. Even functional organizations may have different views to balance internal and external context. 

    Use past projects to get a sense of your company's external landscapes and trends while letting stakeholders have their say to get a complete view of the entire question and problem.
  2. Scope
    Try to find the Goldilocks state that's making the scope too large. Narrow down the problem using specific questions.
  3. Criteria
    Spend time thinking about what success and failure looks like in the scenario. 

    Ask every stakeholder: "What do success and failure look like to you for this problem?"

    Remember, you need your team for success. They are the best people to make change happen in your company. Use their answers to go beyond the numbers and balance quantitative and qualitative criteria. 
  4. Stakeholders
    Define who the core (and broad) stakeholders are in the problem-solving process. 

    People will usually fall into three roles: architects, naysayers and decision-makers. Understand who is in each group and their roles in building a plan to create the core question. 

💡 Prezent Pro-Tip: A core question needs to be dynamic in today's business world. Embracing the question space and creating one each time your team is solving a problem helps shape core questions accurately. 

Why the question space matters

Some of the best examples of using the question space to solve core problems can be found in history. 

In the 1890s, London was facing a catastrophic crisis: the city was drowning in horse manure, and the Council wasn't cleaning it up properly. It wasn't just making the city dirty— typhoid fever and other diseases had also started to spread. 

❓Core question: How can London solve the great horse manure crisis?

London's Urban Council, created in 1898, couldn't find a solution or agree on how to move forward. The crisis continued and wasn't solved until the 1910s, when the Model T Car was launched at an industrial scale and minimized the need for horses on the street. 

So, how did the Urban Council get the crisis so wrong?

❓No rigorous question space. The question space is this environment has four parts: context, success, criteria and stakeholders. The Urban Council failed to recognize stakeholders in its discussions and missed out on a key component of the question space to spur debate.

🔍 Narrow scope. The Council focused on small, incremental gains instead of recognizing the current system (horses providing transportation) would only get worse as the city expanded and the population grew.  

👨💻 Limited experts. No outside technologists, futurists or urban planning experts were consulted by the Council for input. As these stakeholders were not included in discussions, the Council didn't consider technology disruptions or more practical solutions. They stuck to the status quo, and the crisis remained unsolved.

💡Prezent Pro-Tip: Important questions live in a question space. As this crisis proves, simply answering the core question isn't enough—stakeholders and context are crucial to expanding the question space and analyzing the problem from all angles. 

How to influence (and win over) stakeholders

Working with stakeholders can be one of the hardest parts of problem-solving and business communication.

Don't look at stakeholders as a burden. Instead, think of them as an expert coalition guiding a project and building momentum for solving problems. 

Here's how to influence stakeholders when you're creating a question space: 

  • Understand how your stakeholders want to process information. Some people like top-down communication where big ideas are talked about first, while others like bottom-up processes that start with supporting ideas.
  • Appreciate how information is processed. Some people like planned updates or regular check-ins, as it builds confidence in the team and keeps everyone in the loop. Others process information spontaneously and prefer space for creativity and adding ideas when they feel inspired instead of being restricted to updates. 

Leaders can improve their influence on stakeholders with a method known as the four quadrants of preferences: 

  1. For top-down communicators. Meet with these stakeholders regularly and communicate the "Big Picture" Executive Summary to them before any other information.
  2. For bottoms up communicators. Meet with them regularly, but make sure to send any data in advance and save enough time to discuss the finer details. 
  3. For spontaneous stakeholders. Send data early and give them space to ponder it during meetings. The last thing you want is for these stakeholders to feel constrained and have their creativity drained. 
  4. For spontaneous talk down leaders. Paint the bigger picture first, then give stakeholders space to initiate and provide feedback. 


💡Prezent Pro-Tip:
Remember, understanding your stakeholders and matching your communication to their style is the best way to influence them and make discussions worthwhile. 

Expert Corner: How Tammy Mulrooney coaches leaders with provocative questions

Tamsin "Tammy" Mulrooney has been a Transformation Coach at Genentech for over 15 years. 

She says it's essential for leaders to understand the difference between consulting and coaching. While people often look to consultants for answers, leaders can approach coaching as a way to help their teams talk and think about problems out loud. 

Here are Tammy's three main tips for leaders who want to create a more powerful question space:

  • Ask, then listen. The power of a question is asking them to your team and not providing opinions. Listen instead. 
  • Provocative questions are good. Being a successful coach comes down to asking and seeking provocative questions that encourage people to see different perspectives.
  • Two paths are better than one. Some people only follow a one-way track when solving problems. When you help people see different perspectives, it can open up a lot of different paths they can take to address a problem. 

The result? 

Your team will be empowered to find a solution that's suited to the problem they're trying to solve. And it's all done using provocative questions that encourage them to think outside the box. 

Digging to the root of a problem is the first step to solving it

Solving problems can only be done when we create space for discussion and debate. 

Leaders must embrace that the tools and people they need to solve a problem are right in front of them. Understanding the context, scope, and success criteria of the question space can help kickstart a discussion. Once stakeholders enter the space and start asking questions, it can help everyone see the problem differently and understand its root causes. 

Your team is your secret weapon. Use their knowledge and expertise to create a question space, add context to any situation and analyze the problem from every angle. 

Want to learn more about asking better questions? Check out Prezent's detailed article on Advanced Questioning here