Asking the Right QuestionsPosted: November 23, 2015
November 23, 2015
I just finished rereading a provocative book, Freakonomics. When I finished, I realized it posited a situation similar to that raised by Superforecasting. That is, to get an answer a problem, particularly a vexing one, you must ask the right question. And, as these books show, many times we do not do that.
What does that mean to those of us in CI? It means stepping back from “the problem” and clearing our head before we start our research and analysis.
Let me give an example from current headlines on terrorism. The US has bombing campaign underway against ISIS, and has been using killer drones to “decapitate” various terrorist groups.
Looking at them, it appears that they are the answers to the question “How can we destroy terrorist activity using aviation resources?” The answer is bombing and drones. Simple. But should the real questions be, instead,
Can we completely destroy terrorist activity using airborne resources? Have we or anyone else ever done that before?
Is decapitation (by any means) an effective way to destroy a terrorist group? When and where has that happened? Did it last?
What we have, it appears, is the generation of a military strategy based on Mark Twain’s observation: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So, to a nation with the largest air force in the world and the greatest number of drones, eliminating terrorism looks like an air power problem.
This blinder effect is not limited to governments. It exists, to a great degree, in the business world as well. Take for example a question that might occur to you: How can my firm increase its market share in our largest product sector without reducing profit margins? Wrong question – you have already assumed away several significant questions:
Should my firm increase its market share? Is there a risk of increased anti-trust supervision, or of betting the company’s future by increasing its reliance on one product sector? How are those VHSs working out for you?
Can we actually hold profit margins at the current level? Are they now artificially high? Is this a market that is trending towards commoditization, so that profit margins will inevitably decline, making any quest for steady margins a fool’s errand?
The lesson for those of us in CI is clear: by carefully articulating and then methodically reviewing the questions we ask (or are asked by others), we can and must avoid (or at least diminish) the impact of our own and our firm’s built-in blinders in our research and analysis. Remember, by asking the wrong questions, you will never get the right answers.
 Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakeconomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, William Morrow, 2006 (Revised and expanded edition).
 Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, Crown Publishing, New York, 2015, which I recently discussed at https://diy-ci.com/2015/11/09/can-you-really-do-long-range-forecasting/.