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Pose the Right Problem, then Answer the Right Question

February 10, 2016

By Sue L. T. McGregor

PhD Professor Emerita (MSVU) | Independent Scholar, Researcher, Policy Analyst, and Educator | Principal Consultant, McGregor Consulting Group

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suemcgregorA recent CWB article promoted me to think about the vital importance of discerning issues, posing problems and then asking the right questions in business, prior to trying to formulate answers.

Posing a problem involves several stages. First, an issue has to be recognized, then internalized, and then problematized (turn the issue into a problem). An issue is an important topic for discussion, debate and dialogue.

A problem is a situation that presents difficulty, uncertainty or perplexity. When does an issue become a problem? When someone internalizes the issue and relates it to their life. They identify (raise) the issue, name it, frame it, and present it as a problem. This is called problematizing and the process calls into doubt (flags) a matter, previously taken for granted, as potentially problematic, which suggests the need for some form of action to deal with the matter. 

As an example, consider the issue of women working in business and getting close to being in upper management and then being blocked. This issue was finally framed as a problem and called the Glass Ceiling [see theglasshammer.com/2009/04/09/the-glass-ceiling-who-said-that/].

Instead of just focusing on pre-determined issues identified by business analysts or government agencies, business owners can raise an issue they want to address.

They can then pose a problem they want to solve, and identify questions they have about a business matter dear to their heart (i.e., answer the right question).

Business owners have better understandings of a problem affecting them because they have formulated it, and can appreciate how it applies to them. They can demonstrate how it connects to them and their life and business. Posing a problem that is affecting them validates their life experiences, their work context, and the way they ‘know their world.’

In addition to asking the right question, business owners first have to pose the problem, and what is crucial is that who names the problem does not need to be able to solve the problem alone. But, the business owner does need to examine and be intimately aware of her own business, and the surrounding climate and context. This contextual awareness helps the business owner pose problems stemming from her own business life, meaning she has a better chance of making her issues visible, and clear to others.

By identifying a concern they articulated from their real, daily life, and by paying attention to that concern (naming it and addressing it), business owners increase their self-confidence, their faith in their observations of their own life, and they gain self-responsibility and self-reliance. Who poses the problem matters because whoever gets to define an issue as a problem has a lot of influence over the situation and how it is addressed. If a business owner can identify an issue and pose it as a problem, the solutions are more likely to be situation-specific and quicker to put into action.    

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