Question the Brief

Question the Brief

Before jumping in to try to solve a problem, it's important to probe it first. We look at the context (Where did it come from, What are the surrounding factors) and the motivation (Who wants this? Why? Why now?) before moving on to ideation.

In Detail

Asking deeper, more revealing questions about the motivations behind your brief, or the trigger points that led to it, can help you come up with better ideas and more accurate solutions.

Think back to the last time someone asked you to come up with an idea for something. They might have given you a formal brief, or maybe they just asked in a one-line email. Did you suggest some ideas straight away?

If so, you should try to resist that temptation. In today’s fast-paced business environment we often move too quickly to idea generation, before taking time to properly consider the issues at hand.

It’s tempting just to dive in and try to immediately come up with something. But the ideas or solutions you come up with initially will be the most obvious. They will often be cliché-ridden stereotypes or quick rehashes of previous ideas.

So before you start, think about why they’ve asked for the idea. Ask some questions - of them, or of yourself. What is the context for the problem?

Questioning the brief doesn’t necessarily mean finding fault with it. Asking questions about the motivations behind it, or the trigger points that led to it, can really help you come up with better ideas and solutions.

"The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question."
- Peter Drucker
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
– Albert Einstein

You don't need to ask all these questions to the source of the brief, you can just ask yourself - use questioning as a valuable creative thinking technique.

A good start comes from an unlikely source - from the CIA. The Phoenix Checklist was designed for intelligence agents to help them solve problems. It features two lists of questions to help you drill into problems and plans. Here are some of our favourite questions from the list:

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  • What is it you don’t yet understand?
  • What are the best, worst and most probable cases you can imagine?
  • How will you know when you are successful?

Try and keep on questioning even when you come up against resistance. For example have you ever asked: "why do we do it this way" only to receive the answer: "because we always have"?

It's important to try to get past these obvious answers. And you can expect to be questioned about your questioning approach too - people are often so anxious to "get things done" that they have little patience for questions.

"Don't bring me questions, bring me answers!" they might say. Push on.

As Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, says:

"Companies should be careful about discouraging fundamental, seemingly naïve questions - which can be a valuable tool for challenging the most basic assumptions about why and how your company does what it does."

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