Are you asking the right questions?

Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” In other words, to solve our problems we need new questions, big questions, small questions - different questions. As our nation debates, once again, the best way to stem gun violence, reduce bipartisanship, improve immigration policies, protect women’s rights, and much more, we seem to be stuck, again, asking the wrong questions and coming up with lame solutions. What is made possible when we ask the right questions?

Recently there have been some exciting examples of some of our BIG problems beginning to be answered in exciting new ways. These solutions are not cumbersome, they are easy to adopt, and my favorite, they are post-partisan (i.e. things everyone can agree on and adopt without much heartburn). How are these solutions discovered? By asking a new question, like these brilliant examples demonstrate:


What if we treated violence like a disease?

Researchers and policy makers have been trying to stem the tide of violence since the first caveman figured out how to turn a rock into a weapon. In 2000, Gary Slutkin, M.D., founded Cure Violence. After making huge strides in his career mapping, then attacking the spread of communicable diseases in Africa, Gary returned home to Chicago. As violence raged in his hometown, he wondered how his experience mapping disease in Africa could be applied to the major health crisis in Chicago: murder. So he asked a different question, “What if we tried to reduce violence globally using disease control and behavior change methods?”

By asking a different question to the same problem, Dr. Slutkin and his organization have unleashed a formidable solution to the plague of inner city violence we have grown accustomed to. By building relationships throughout the communities in focus, they begin looking at historic violent crime data and take note of trends – when crimes are occurring, in which neighborhoods, amongst which populations, etc. With a team of community members armed with good data, they send out “interrupters” to detect and interrupt the areas where the data says a violent crime will take place. The interrupters intervene, and provide resources to the potential perpetrators regarding mental health services in their community, mediators, food banks, etc. The interrupters are from the community and help the community become aware of it’s malicious pattern and gives them tools to re-write their story. After an intervention, the work continues – data is gathered, community partners are brought together, additional training is provided and potentially violent situations are deescalated.


What is really best for our customers?

REI Outdoors recently said they are closing on November 27th, “Black Friday.” Given that this date is historically the largest day for retailers, REI’s campaign to #OptOutside on Black Friday is unprecedented. With this bold move , REI is asking, “What is really best for our customers?” To stand in line and battle the barrage of sales and consumerism, or to be with loved ones, enjoying nature?

Some organizations may ask simpler questions, like, “How can we better serve our customers?” In which case, the answer would logically be, “lower prices, better promotions, free coffee, etc.” But by asking a larger, more challenging question, REI has to look at some deeply held assumptions and beliefs. Given the organization’s mission and values, the focus of the #OptOutside campaign makes complete sense. This bold stance will certainly affect REI’s sales on Nov. 27th, and I predict the other 363 days a year they are open they will see an uptick in their sales.


Do We Need Big Banks?

Remember 2008? TARP? Lehman Brothers? Washington Mutual? Seems like eons ago, yet it is still hard for main street to get a loan, and talk of an interest rate hike remains just that. In the wake of the Great Recession, a handful of people started asking some big questions that had not been asked, nor answered before. Do we really need big banks?

Shortly after the crash of 2008, Kickstarter emerged on the scene. Since 2009, Kickstarter has help 94,781 projects connect to 9,727,948 funders who provided $2,041,138,229 in funds. Since Kickstarter, many other similar crowdsourcing platforms have come onto the scene, each filling a particular funding niche (i.e., classrooms, health crises, nonprofits, etc.).

In addition to the crowd sourced funding platforms, we’ve seen the rise of the people-powered lending platforms. Lending Club and Social Finance (SoFi) are the vanguard in this arena. Much like crowd sourcing platforms, Lending Club and SoFi, during their inception asked, “How can we harness the power of peers to support people in securing meaningful and reasonable loans?”

Lending Club answered this question by creating an investing platform where borrowers can find a loan, and investors can purchase notes backed by payments made on loans. As of July 2015, the Lending Club has borrowed and provided funding for $11.1 Billion in loans.

SoFi created a marketplace that provides student loan refinancing, mortgages and other types of loans, such personal loans, all with lower interest rates than big banks. Their application process takes just 15 minutes and you can find out if you qualify for a loan immediately. Their criterion for lending is unconventional, and fills the needs of people who don’t easily fit traditional bank lending criteria.

These companies are helping people gain access to capital in an era where the banks lack the nimbleness to address the tension between market constraints and consumer demands. These companies, and many others, are asking a different question, coming up with different answers and solving a big problem as it relates to accessing capital. Suffice it to say that a new financial model is emerging, and it is not coming from the financial titans we grew up with. It is emerging from better questions posed by new financial cavaliers seeking to harness the power of peers.


What big problems are you facing? What question can you ask that could change your understanding and unlock the solution?

  • What if we controlled access to guns like we do access to abortion?
  • How can vacant properties provide value to the surrounding community?

The solutions I reference above are simple and elegant, and not easy. Easy solutions are mitigations. Easy solutions are the ones we have become accustomed to, and are often not sustainable solutions. By asking a different question we change our understanding of the problem. It’s time to ask a different question to unlock the solutions our tribes, our organizations and our communities need.