Ask a Different Question, Get a Different Answer

November 14, 2011  

Today I want to test your mental muscle with an activity I conduct with my clients.

If you are a college sports fan, you will most likely be familiar with the NCAA basketball playoffs. 65 teams in total compete. The games are organized into brackets like the one illustrated here. Teams compete with the hope of making it into the “sweet sixteen,” the “final four,” and then ultimately being crowned the champion. The tournament is single elimination – that means that after each game, the winner advances to the next round and the loser’s eliminated.

With the NCAA tournament, the two lowest ranking teams compete against each other to get the 64th slot in the bracket.

The question is, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?”

The only way most will be able to find the answer is to draw out the full bracket and count the number of games in the chart. As a result, when I ask groups this question, it takes quite some time for everyone to answer correctly.

However, consider this.  If I were to phrase the question differently, I can guarantee that you would find the solution instantly.

Instead of asking, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?” what if I asked, “How many games need to be played in order to eliminate all of the losers?”

The answer should now be obvious. If you have 65 teams playing, 64 teams must lose. Since the tournament is single elimination, 64 games need to be played to eliminate all of the losers. Therefore 64 games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion.

This simple exercise makes an incredibly important point. The way you phrase a problem will lead you down the path of a particular thought process. This, in turn will lead to a particular solution. How you ask the question will impact the manner in which you innovate.

A company who brainstormed, “How can we more effectively use 360 degree feedback?” completely missed alternative methods for addressing their larger management issue. If they had asked, “In what way might we create powerful leaders?” they would have found very different solutions.

An office supply company that asked the question, “How can we more effectively sell our products to school administrators?” completely missed the fact that the teachers were the real buyers and that that the administrators merely filled out the paperwork. In this case they should have done their homework to understand the real buyer first before looking to find solution.

Or when NASA wanted to “create a zero gravity laundry system” for space travel, they missed out on possible solutions that involved other methods for cleaning clothes or creating a material that does not require cleaning.

Asking the right question – the right way – is the surest way to accelerate your innovation efforts and for finding better solutions. Just as the NCAA tournament example showed, sometimes a very small change can have a significant impact on the way you view the problem.

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