Is this the right problem?

I sometimes joke that one half of my job is approving things, the other half is asking questions. Of course, asking any question isn’t all that hard, asking the right question is a skill. However, there are a few tricks. There are a couple of questions that prove valuable over and over. Let’s do some branding here and let’s call them power questions. Are you ready for some power?

Here’s one: “Is this the right problem?”

So, here’s a common trap — You’ve just finished a sprint or a quarter of work, and excited to plan the next one. Being an avid The 100x Engineer reader, you remember that your decisions ought to be well-considered, so you spent time documenting the exact problem you’re going to solve, the solution space, trade-offs between those solutions and you’ve picked the one you’re betting on in a nice narrative. Then, you clearly laid out what success looks like. Boom.

Excellent, let’s get started, shall we?

Not quite yet. The question that still needs to be asked is the scoping question:

Is this the right problem to solve?

Given everything you could be spending your time on in your universe — and let’s define the universe to be what’s in your team’s scope — is this the most valuable thing you can do given…

  1. The amount of time, resources and energy it will take — time you will not be able to use for anything else.
  2. The expected value you expect to get from it — how does the amount of input (time, resources, energy) weigh against the expected output? Business people call this ROI (Return On Investment).
  3. Timing — do we need to do this now? Is this the right time? Can, or even, should, we do this later?

There is opportunity cost to everything you do. A day spent on one thing means that day will not be spent on something else. So, you need to ask yourself if you’re solving the right problem.

In practice, it’s quite hard to do this exercise, for various reasons. First, it’s super easy to mentally sink knee deep in the problem and solution space very quickly, making it pretty damn hard to conclude that… actually, we shouldn’t care about any of this, we should do something completely different… and dump all that mental investment in the trash. Second, some problems are just fun to solve, and some solutions are challenging to implement. You run into something during your last cycle and think: oh, we cannot deal with that now, but let’s do that in the next one, it will be fun!

Yet, since you’re reading this site, you care about optimizing impact. Impact is not made by working harder, or working more; it’s done by working smart — as cheesy as that sounds. Make sure you spend time on the things that make the most difference.

And that all starts with asking the right questions.