”What problem are you solving together ?” is by far my preferred question at work, and probably the most powerful, too. It can be quite incisive, if the reactions it creates are any measure:

« What do you exactly mean by problem? »

« We are not specifically solving a problem here, we are [XYZ]. »

« Not sure there is only one problem… »

« Not sure we are solving it together… »

« Where are you going with that kind of questions anyway? »

Whenever I ask this question to a group, and they start giving answers, it’s like a large white table cloth being laid on a large table, and every person in the conversation starts putting objects on that white table. What kind of objects? Objects of any kind, big objects and small objects, useful and useless, practical or cumbersome objects. And what happens next? Then I begin to visualize distances and other spatial relationships, and I get to explore, via asking more questions, the “space” of the problem, whatever that means.

I work with teams that are stuck in some way or another. They are having a difficulty with regression testing, with bugs, or with their decision making, or they are trying to reconcile a tight schedule with improvements in code quality. They find that they have to negociate the amount of refactoring activity for the next ’sprint’. They fight over deciding if the issue X is a bug or a request for change. They are tempted, or asked, to go faster in a direction that seems barely established.

To summarize, they are trying to solve a problem together, and doing so, they keep exploring not only the ’solution’ (which, despite what expert reports, marketing brochures and roadmaps claim, probably doesn’t exist and certainly can’t be implemented at that point), but also the problem space itself. My questions only help them put into words, sometimes in figures, the specific aspects of the problem on which, as they discover, they were not really agreeing. When this exploration work is done — it can take from two hours to two weeks maybe, depending on the dimensions of the endeavor — a lot of ways to improve their efficiency as a team start appearing.

Let’s define a problem as the difference between a perceived situation and a desired situation. Let’s add some key informations :

  • who is having the problem? (who is perceiving, and desiring?)
  • what are the objectives?
  • what are the constraints?
  • what resources are we allowed to use?
  • what are heuristics we can apply here?
  • what is our state of the art?

I have never met a team that was stuck and had a coherent, aligned answer for these questions. It seems that every time I ask: “what problem are you solving together?” there will be a variety of conflicting positions with regard to one or several of these characteristics. Once the question gets asked, the table cloth is spread on the table, and the various objects laid out, then the group is ready to move forward solving the problem together.