Questions are the motor of thinking. A question puts your subconscious databanks into motion—it’s a request to the subconscious to provide information. Although I teach techniques to generate questions to move thinking along, sometimes it’s helpful to use pre-packaged questions in addition to or instead of your own.
To warm up your thinking on a subject, Marcia Yudkin recommended1 answering this set of six questions on paper, allowing yourself exactly three minutes per question:
- Describe it. What are its physical characteristics?
- Define it. What are its essential qualities?
- Compare it. What is it similar to and different from?
- Analyze it. What are its parts?
- Associate from it. What does it remind you of?
- Argue for it and against it. What are the pros and cons?
These are excellent questions to jump-start your thinking. They cover six logical processes: concretization, definition, differentiation, analysis, analogy, and proof. In 6 weeks, I have used them a dozen times.
I find that three minutes per question is the perfect amount of time. It’s long enough that you have to push yourself a bit and short enough that you don’t get discouraged or bogged down trying for the perfect answer. And when I’m finished, I’m not just warmed up—I’ve generated a substantial amount of useful material.
You can use this 3-minute technique with sets of questions for different purposes. Good pre-packaged questions appear in many “how to” books. For example, here is a set of questions for describing a problem:
- What is it we’re trying to explain? What is the difference between how things are and how they should be?
- Where do we observe this happening?
- When does it occur?
- How serious or how extensive is it?
And here are questions for improving a regular decision process:
- What makes this kind of decision difficult?
- What kinds of errors are often made?
- How would an expert make this decision differently than a novice? Identify cues and strategies the experts use.
- How can I practice and get feedback to help me make this decision better next time?
I’ve collected these and other question-sets and written them on index cards. Now when I face a puzzle, I look through the cards, then choose the most relevant questions to spur me on my way. I’m finding that questions I read about years ago are suddenly helpful in new situations. For example, I’ve adapted the questions for improving decisions (above) into a set for improving judgment.
Asking myself pre-packaged questions has become an indispensable technique for me. I’ve added this tool to my workshop, and I am recommending it to you. Collect pre-packaged questions. Then, when you need to jump-start your thinking, simply choose an appropriate set, and spend three minutes answering each one on paper. It will be time well spent.
1. Marcia Yudkin reports this set of questions is called “Cubing” by its creator, Elizabeth Howe, in her CD course, Become a More Productive Writer.
2. Kepner & Tregoe, The New Rational Manager.
3. Gary Klein, The Power of Intuition.