Facing a complex problem, a critical task is to actively drive structure into it. One way to do this is to frame the problem using a situation-complication-question (SCQ) sequence.
A SCQ is a great way to frame your problem; that is, to summarize what’s relevant for your problem. You can develop better SCQs by following four basic rules: backpack, rabbit, Dolly, and Watson.
For a quick reference guide to the four key rules, download this handy infographic and save it to your computer desktop or print it for your office bulletin board.
The backpack rule helps you introduce only the necessary information. Just as you decide what to put into your backpack ahead of a hiking trip, the backpack rules states that you should include in your SCQ only what you need, because you’ll carry it with you along your SCQ. Concretely, you can validate that you follow the backpack rule by ensuring that all meaningful information in an early part of the SCQ appear again at least once in another part.
The rabbit rule helps you introduce the information you need before the question. It is named after magicians: For a magician to pull a rabbit out of a hat, the rabbit must have been in the hat in the first place. Your question is too late to introduce new information, as it’s a point of convergence. If you need something in the Q, you must introduce it before.
Taken together, the backpack and rabbit rules amount to the holding hands rule, which means that you don’t introduce anything that’s unnecessary (backpack) and you don’t introduce anything new at the last minute (rabbit) (see Twardy).
The Dolly rule helps you enhance precision and remove gaps in your logic by pushing you to refer to things in a single way. It is named after Dolly the sheep, the first mammal that was cloned. You’re not writing a grammatical masterpiece, you’re actively driving clarity in your problem so, yes, maybe the Dolly rule makes for a duller read, but it’s a clearer one. And, besides, good SCQs are too short to get boring, so even if the read is dull, it’s a short one!
Finally, the Watson rule helps you ensure that your claims are substantiated. Just as Sherlock’s sidekick never cracked the case because he didn’t look close enough, it’s easy to think that our problem is one thing, and setup our SCQ accordingly, without having the solid evidence needed to support our thinking. When dealing with CIDNI problems, you must disengage your autopilot, which you can start doing by checking your key assumptions.
Boucher, S., et al. (2015). Improving your reasoning, Melbourne Critical Thinking Project.
Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 38–39.
SWARM. “The lens kit.” Retrieved January 1, 2020, from https://swarm-help.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/categories/360000312751-The-Lens-Kit.
Twardy, C. (2010). “Argument maps improve critical thinking.” Teaching Philosophy 27(2): 95-116.