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.
2. Kepner & Tregoe, The New Rational Manager.
3. Gary Klein, The Power of Intuition.