What Is The Right Question To Ask In A Problem Situation?


Wednesday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The best things in life make you sweaty. – Edgar Allan Poe

Simon Sinek gave a very popular TED talk where he talked about his theory that great leaders “start with why.”

He talks about how people don’t buy what you do – they buy why you do it.

And he also links this theory to a biological model, perhaps a systems one – and it sounds a little like something called a viable systems model – which I still need to get my head around.

But first, I’m wondering if Simon’s model is one that makes sense.

And the reason for that is the examples he gives seem a little too neat and tidy and don’t seem to tie up with other sources or with first principles reasoning.

Take Apple, for example. It’s set up as a company that believes in making stuff that is beautifully designed and easy to use.

And, of course, Steve Jobs came up with that.

Except he didn’t.

Jobs had a personality, a view, an affection for Zen and simplicity.

But it was Johnny Ive, a British designer, who had the ideas and he, in turn, was influenced by the Bauhaus tradition and its focus on the essence of things.

So is Apple’s “Why” the root from which everything grows or is it one manifestation of a particular way of thinking.

Another example Simon gives is that of the Wright brothers – and that they were driven by a belief “that if they could figure out this flying machine, it’ll change the course of the world.”

But seriously, who thinks like that?

Who sits down and looks at a problem and sees what it’s going to do far into the future?

Of course, some people do, and they dream up possible futures – and some of them turn out to be right because one of those futures might actually happen.

For many of us, however, we’re working on a particular problem that happens to be interesting.

Flying, as Simon says, was the dot com of its day.

Lots of people were playing with mechanical machines just like lots of people are playing with code now.

The brothers were working on problems of torque, propeller length, differential drag and a host of other things that needed solving.

So, were they driven by a dream or by an interesting problem that they were hooked on?

Now, of course, everyone has different views but I wonder whether the Sinek Golden Circle – which starts with why, then asks how and then asks what – is a little overdone.

A different question I came across recently is to ask “to what end?”

Asking why tends to lead to fuzziness – to hopes and wants and wishes and dreams.

An end seems more tangible.

It seems like something people can aim for.

Steve Jobs, for example, wanted a Macintosh to be like a Cuisinart – all you needed to make everything you wanted.

That was what led to the Mac having a closed system – one it completely controlled and within which it was perfect.

But that’s also why the Intel and Windows world pulled ahead.

And these days it plays the same way, trying to make it very hard for anyone else to interoperate with its devices.

So, if you ask to what end did Apple build its devices, maybe a better answer is they built them to be closed systems – so that they could make them as perfect as possible.

We don’t know.

But if you were to do something now – start a new project or a business, say.

Do you think you would be better off starting with why – and listing your motives and purposes.

To be independent, rich, have time with your family… etc.

Are those whys any different from the whys of your mate next door?

Or would you be better off asking “to what end” are you starting that new project or business?

What’s the problem you’re solving, the need you’re meeting?

What actually happens in the end?

I feel I know which approach I’d prefer.


Karthik Suresh

2 Replies to “What Is The Right Question To Ask In A Problem Situation?”

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