Live the Questions

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet

Too often people jump to the answer before fully understanding the question.

I see this happen with companies often, especially in “brainstorming” meetings and customer interviews.

Most “brainstorming” meetings I attend look something like this: somebody presents a loosely defined goal, a few solutions are presented, the majority of the group jumps at one of the solutions early on, and then explores that solution. Not only isn’t this true brainstorming—brainstorming involves clearly defined problems and getting as many ideas out as possible without evaluation—it can never hope to produce a great solution: ill-defined problems lead to weak solutions.

A similar thing often happens when most people interview customers: after one or two interviews the interviewer or interviewers start to focus on an answer and the rest of the interviews skew towards providing support for the answer rather than focus on listening and exploration. The answer comes before the question is fully explored—and it often leads to something the company that hired the interviewer already knows.

This jumping to answers early on pervades many business decisions. And, it’s easy to understand why: humans are natural solution-seekers, it helps them better understand the world in order to increase survival potential—and looming deadlines don’t help. But, natural tendencies don’t always lead to the best results. Keep in mind the words of the philosopher Émile Chartier: “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have.”1

Next time, instead of jumping to exploring or finalizing a solution, explore the problem and many potential options. The solution will be more effective.

  1. Émile Chartier, Propos, 1920.
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