Right Answer, Wrong Question: How Our Brains Get in the Way of Effective Problem Solving

By Scott Whitbread and Joshua Renken

Operations teams often face hard problems that are both urgent and important – lack of production, major equipment breakdowns, quality issues, and underperforming new assets, to name a few. A common refrain in these moments is for a senior leader to ask their team, “Why is this problem happening?” In fact, it’s the first step in the most commonplace of all problem-solving methods: The 5 Whys analysis. But the answer to this question is rarely obvious. (If it were, the problem likely would have been solved on the shop floor). In the face of these hard questions, we often change and simplify the question as we process it in our minds, without even realizing it, and answer our substituted, simpler question instead.

For example, if I have a limited understanding of the system in which the problem is occurring, I may convert the why-is-this-happening question to: “How is this problem related to the parts of the process that I know?” – to which I will answer invariably with a bias toward something I understand, regardless of the evidence.

If I’m feeling particularly anxious to resolve this problem, I may substitute the why question for: “What potential solution could we try out quickly and easily?” Answering this question, largely unrelated to diagnosing why the problem is occurring in the first place, will likely send the group down a rabbit hole of fruitless activity.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate in Economics for his work on human decision-making, explains how question substitution is a time-saving, but lazy, cognitive trick that we use on ourselves to preserve our mental energy when the stakes are low. We substitute our hard target question with a “heuristic” (or simplified, rule-of-thumb) question that requires less effort to solve.

However, allowing yourself, or your team members, to substitute questions in the face of a pressing operations challenge will practically guarantee that any headway you make on solving the problem will be by chance alone.                                       

Question substitution leads to a lack of containment around where the discussion is heading, making it hard for teams to make progress down a logical path. It causes more problems than it solves just like in the story of Hercules battling the Hydra, where his indiscriminate cutting off of heads, each being quickly replaced by two more, only made the problem worse.

Just as Hercules got wise to the Hydra, and cauterised each stump with fire to stop the monster’s heads from growing back, leaders and teams must ask more precise questions, and strive for their true answers to create meaningful progress.

What makes question substitution so problematic is that we rarely realise when a target question is difficult to answer, because the answer to the simpler question comes so quickly to mind. The next time you are in a meeting look for instances where someone answers a subtly different question to the one that was asked, and take note of how this diverts the discussion. You might even catch yourself doing it later today.

The vaguer and more qualitative the phrasing, the more susceptible a question is to question substitution. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you can’t answer your question with data and evidence, it risks being substituted for simplified questions that limit your team’s potential.

Instead of asking the why-is-this-happening question, here are a few alternatives that are more immune to question substitution and will get you on the right track to solving your problem:

  • “What do we know about why this problem is occurring?”
  • “What would we like to know about why this problem is occurring (and how can we find it out)?”
  • “What potential causes of the problem can we rule out, based on the evidence?”
  • “How would you define this problem? What must be brought back into control for it to be solved?”

By understanding question substitution and working to avoid its pitfalls, your team can stop guessing and start solving its hardest problems.


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