Only ask how if you know why

Only ask how if you know why

Jul 2, 2010

To solve your problem you need to identify various possible answers, compare them, and select the one that, on balance, is best. In other words, you need to ask, how should I solve this problem? But focus too quickly on the "how" and you risk solving a perceived problem rather than the actual one.

Focus on how you may solve your problem only if you know its root cause(s)

Focusing early on on how you may solve your problem is attractive because it forces you, right from the start, to think about potential solutions: You are finding the various alternatives. Soon, you’ll decide which one is the best, and implement it. Let's get it done!

[IMAGE MISSING: Question-map-–-How-may-I-go-from-NYC-to-London-1024x1002.png]
By jumping into finding how you may solve your problem without first understanding its root causes, you might be highly inefficient.

But the drawback with this approach is that much of your effort can be misplaced if you don’t know the root cause of your problem.

Consider having to go from New York City to London. If you ask how you may do so, you may create a question map that looks like the one above. If you're exhaustive, you'll consider everything and anything, from taking a airliner to bringing London to you. But why do you want to go to London in the first place?

If your primary motivation is, say, a business meeting, then you’ll probably be most interested in being in London on a specific date and not being tired when you get there. Also, price will probably not be too important. So, although an airliner or a private jet will do, going at it swimming or using a submarine won’t. Alternatively, if your goal is to go to London to raise awareness on climate change, using an airliner won’t do but swimming just might.

So, if you don’t know the root causes of your problem, jumping straight to identifying solutions can feel efficient but may end up being counterproductive or downright 
. You’re better off diagnosing your problem and using that additional information to ask a better key question, and only then proceeding to finding solutions.


Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 45–78.Enders, A., et al. (2016). "Stop Jumping to Solutions!" MIT Sloan Management Review
57(4): 63.