Are You Solving the Right Problems in Your Life, Family or Ministry?

Kara Powell | Sep 28, 2012

I love good questions. I love being with people who ask good questions. I’ve heard it said that half the battle is defining the right question, and I completely agree.

That’s why I was so intrigued by this recent blog post by the Harvard Business Review on the power of defining the right problem. In other words, the power of asking the right question(s).

Here’s one of their examples of making sure you’re defining the right problem:

The Solar Flare Problem
In 2009 NASA decided it needed a better way to forecast solar flares in order to protect astronauts and satellites in space and power grids on Earth. The model it had been using for the past 30 years predicted whether radiation from a solar flare would reach Earth with only a four-hour lead time and no more than 50% accuracy.

How the Problem Was Defined. NASA did not ask potential solvers simply to find a better way to predict solar flares; instead, it pitched the problem as a data challenge, calling on experts with analytic backgrounds to use one of the agency’s greatest assets 30 years of space weather data to develop a forecasting model. This data-driven approach not only invited solvers from various fields but also enabled NASA to provide instant feedback, using its archived data, on the accuracy of proposed models.

The Breakthrough. A semiretired radio-frequency engineer living in rural New Hampshire used data analysis and original predictive algorithms to develop a forecasting model that provided an eight-hour lead time and 85% accuracy. He was awarded $30,000 for this solution.

By redefining the problem, engineers were able to look at the problem from a different angle, and even involve new and out-of-the-box team members in coming up with their solutions.

What’s the biggest problem you’re facing in your family or ministry right now? What questions are you asking about that problem? What new or different questions might you ask that might help you arrive at a better solution?

One of the phrases that has helped my parenting is that there’s always a belief behind the behavior. So instead of focusing just on my kids’ behavior, I can ask: What belief is driving them to do what they do? That’s a different type of question to ask.

As a leader, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the obstacles that stand in the way of progress toward our vision. Often those obstacles are people. What if we ask the same question I suggest above in parenting to people in our churches and ministries: What belief is driving them to do what they do?

That’s re-defining the problem. And it might just yield some better solutions.

What other questions do you ask in your family or leadership that have helped you re-define problems?

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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