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Tips & Tools

Problem Hacking

In Leadership Landscapes, Jim Keen and Tom Cummings outline a useful problem solving tool called an inquiry map. The inquiry map sits alongside decision making tools such as the cause and effect diagram (AKA Fishbone Diagram) and the drill-down technique. The cause and effect diagram is useful for getting to the bottom of a product launch failure or other mishap. The drill-down technique is useful for breaking large problems into smaller, more manageable chunks. It works well for problems where the parameters are well-understood. By contrast, the inquiry map’s purpose is to bring to light what might not be visible at first glance.

The inquiry map is a tool to use before diving into other tools to ensure you’re seeing the full picture of the problem. It can also stand on it’s own as a way to quickly get to the bottom of something that’s bothering you. When you feel a niggle of fear of anxiety, drawing a quick inquiry map can help you identify the tape playing in the background of your psyche.

In Jim’s words, here’s how the inquiry map came to be and why it’s one of the cornerstones of his and Tom’s business consulting practice:

Some years ago I was working with people at the UN and I used the term problematique to describe a problem that was more complex than three dimensions. We had been discussing the Limits of Growth report [from the Club of Rome]. As part of that, we had  these computer reports with a lot of different things going on and we said, ‘This is daunting; this is too complex.”

The question was how could we begin to get clear on the contours of the problem. We started out with triangulation: comparing and contrasting three things—A and B in terms of C, but that was too simple. Then we came up with was a circle. We knew we could keep six things in mind simultaneously, so we organized our material like a clock with six numbers: one at 12, one at 2, one at 4, one at 6 and so on. But when we drew the inner impact lines, there were 24 of them! That number of factors was too daunting for analysis.

We backed it down to five numbers on our clock and eventually to four. When we got to four, we saw that we could actually do it. We drew lines from 12 to 6 to 3 to 9 and had six inner impact lines. This was something we could handle.

The inquiry map allows you to take four dimensions of something and array them in such a way that you can work with how each of the four interact with the other three. Doing this allows you to see the whole picture of what’s going on.

When we do this exercise with clients, they start to see things they hadn’t seen before. We have found that people are able to intuit a larger landscape, a larger whole. They begin to see pathways forward; potential solutions; new questions. They see dimensions they left out. It moves them forward by an order of magnitude into four dimensional thinking.

I have been using inquiry maps for several years and have found them extremely useful. When I’m stuck on something, I get our a blank piece of paper and in the upper left I start writing down the different elements or dimensions of the problem. The goal is to get to four elements. Usually, I can quickly come up with three, but have trouble with the fourth. The fourth one is key because it gets me into a state of deep concentration. Other times, I come up with a list of six or ten elements and have to narrow them down to the most important four. When this happens, I usually need more than one map. When I’m satisfied with my four elements, I’ll draw the inquiry map and start to think about the relationships between each dimension. It surprises me how effective this process is for helping me understand the problems I face and developing plans for solving them.

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