Research Cycle

 Vol 4|No 5|June|2008
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Chapter Sixteen — Unanswerable Questions

This is a chapter from Jamie McKenzie's new book, Leading Questions. You can order a copy at the FNO Bookstore.

The real questions are the ones that obtrude upon
your consciousness whether you like it or not, the
ones that make your mind start vibrating like a jack-
hammer, the ones that you “come to terms with” only
to discover that they are still there. The real questions
refuse to be placated. They barge into your life at the
times when it seems most important for them to stay
away. They are the questions asked most frequently
and answered most inadequately, the ones that reveal

their true natures slowly, reluctantly, most often
against your will.
Ingrid Bengis, Combat in the Erogenous Zone

“What’s the best treatment for my cancer?”
“What should we do about the change in demographics?”
“How can we make sure all our employees are trustworthy?”

Even though many questions may be unanswerable in the sense that no definitive, clear conclusions can be reached, those same questions are often crucial. Their resistance to analysis makes them no less important. A team’s success may depend upon wrestling with elusive, frustrating questions and issues. In some cases, survival may require such skill.

Wrestling with unanswerable questions is related to what some call managing ambiguity. Earlier chapters have warned of grasping for false certainties or imposing wishful thinking upon complex realities. With sharp questioning skills, team members can approach understanding, but in many cases they must approximate answers and keep things somewhat open and imprecise.

A team learns to bat around these questions over time much like a cat toys with a captured mouse. In no hurry to end the game or eat its prey, the cat prolongs the ordeal in a way that seems cruel.

Unanswerable questions may taunt us for a lifetime, eluding and frustrating our efforts to find satisfying answers. Some people will find such questions so irritating that they will swallow simplistic answers on the basis of faith rather than continue the struggle.

1. Recognizing the Unanswerable Question

Many unanswerable questions fail to announce themselves or to confess their intractable nature in advance. The unsuspecting team or individual wades in expecting to find an answer quickly. It might take days or weeks before the searchers recognize that fog has grown rather than lifted. When coping with unanswerable questions, the more one studies them, ironically, the less one might understand.

a. Mammoth questions are often unanswerable. They are simply so grand in scope they are beyond the capacity of anyone’s mind’s to understand. From time to time an Einstein comes along and captures one of these whopping big questions with a theory that encapsulates its essential elements, dimensions and operations, but such minds are rare, and even an Einstein expresses respect for grandeur and mystery. The enormity and complexity of mammoth questions combine to elude many of the conceptual structures and tools we usually employ to reach clarity.

b. Quandaries and dilemmas are also usually unanswerable - decisions which offer no good options. Any action taken, any option chosen is wrong or damaging in some sense. A company bleeding red ink must take decisive action to survive, but all of the choices will probably cause pain and suffering. Under the circumstances, some action must be taken and an answer must be given, so the management team may claim the question was answerable, but they have only answered the question of how the company might survive. They have not answered the question of how to take good care of the loyal employees who will lose their jobs in order to stem the flow of red ink. They will probably dodge that question or pay it lip service.

c. Ethical issues often provoke unanswerable questions, since so much about them is gray and imprecise. For many people, questions involving values seem murky rather than black and white. Often the best outcome may amount to little more than cutting losses and compromising on ethics.

d. Pioneering new realms and exploring the unknown provides another major category of unanswerable questions, or questions that will not be answered until after much trial and error, hypothesis testing and uncovering. “Is it possible to sail all the way around this new land we have found in the South Pacific?”

Until Matthew Flinders actually sailed around Australia in the late 1700s, it remained an unanswerable question for the Europeans. On the day he finished the circumnavigation, he answered the question. It became an answerable question.

“Was Flinders the first man or woman to ever circumnavigate Australia?”

This is probably another unanswerable question, since those native people living in the Pacific who might have made it around Australia before Flinders apparently did not leave us a record of their feats. Perhaps archaeologists may discover evidence some day, but it seems unlikely.

e. Knowing what happened in the past with any clarity and certainty is thus another category for unanswerable questions. Even when events happen within the week, it can be difficult to know exactly what happened, as in the case of murders. Prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial were unable to answer convincingly the question of who killed his wife and her boyfriend. To this day, the question remains unanswerable at some level, even though many people have reached their own conclusions and are content with their answers. If O.J. Simpson issued a confession of some kind, perhaps that would convert an unanswerable question into an answered question, but lurking behind the question of who killed his wife would be another unanswerable question which is “How can some people get away with murder?” as well as “Is there no justice?” or “How can we make sure this kind of thing does not happen again?”

f. Mysteries and puzzles like the ones just mentioned, then, are a major source of unanswerable questions. We can puzzle over certain questions all our lives without coming to much resolution.

“How can humans stoop to the kind of cruelty and torture we are seeing in Iraq?”
“How can a nation lose its way and forget its most basic
“How can we build a nation in a land made up of sects that hate each other enough to kill off innocent men, women and children from the other sects in the name of some kind of holy ideal?”

In an earlier chapter, a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell about Enron accounting, “Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information,” provided an intriguing illustration of some modern mysteries that result from complex and enormous data sets. Gladwell contrasts mysteries (probably not solvable) to puzzles with solutions.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two
opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain
the ability to function.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Paradoxical solutions entail the resolution of apparently contradictory features and elements. The presenting challenge seems like an unanswerable question because the answer is so absurd it is almost unthinkable. Because we are predisposed to look for logical solutions, paradoxical solutions are sometimes difficult to grasp or identify. They are too much like the porcupine — spikey. They are also frequently incongruous, anomalous, illogical, puzzling, baffling, and incomprehensible.

To understand them and note their value requires a taste for the absurd, the capacity to entertain what might seem nonsensical.

One must be able to play with apparently silly possibilities and cast off some of the “mental locks” Roger von Oech lists in Whack on the Side of the Head.

Some Mental locks to discard?

Avoid Ambiguity
Play Is Frivolous
That’s Not Logical

2. Managing the Unanswerable Question

Because wrestling with ambiguity can be extremely frustrating, success depends upon an attitude that combines patience with determination and persistence. Skill is not enough by itself. This is a case where blurred vision is likely and clarity may not be possible.

Those who equate understanding with sharply delineated certainties will find little satisfaction. These questions lead to shadowy, often murky partial answers. Falsely imposing black and white upon gray realities is both dishonest and dangerous.

Confronted by complexity or clouded prospects, many will become so baffled or perplexed that they cannot proceed. They cannot manage the complications without becoming confused. Often they will feel stymied. They may walk away in frustration, or they may grasp at straws. Squinting at such questions rarely does much good. A team must learn to identify the nature of a question and then adjust expectations and the style of inquiry to match the prospects.

Blurred vision is still vision. There are truths lurking in the shadows. A team that has learned to navigate in the fog is better prepared to find safe passageway than a team that imposes wishful thinking upon the shadows. Night blindness (nyctalopia) is an affliction that endangers problem-solving teams as well as drivers.

One must be content with seeing little more than the vague outline of things. One must find meaning in the slimmest of cues and clues. One must have an appetite for subtleties and nuance, the shadings and gradients of a shadowy reality.

A school team might ask, “How will our challenges shift during the next five years?” A public library team might inquire, “How will our challenges shift during the next five years?” A hardware store, a public utility and a major corporation might also ask the same question.

Clairvoyance — the ability to see the future clearly in advance — has always been in short supply, even though the availability of clairvoyants (self-proclaimed) and futurists has never been in doubt.

As Peter Drucker was credited with saying, “Guru is a word for those unable to spell charlatan.” The popularity of these prophets is probably related to the difficulty of managing such an unanswerable question with any confidence. It may be that the futurist is selling confidence rather than truth. Unable to find their way or manage the complexity, a team turns to a consultant or expert to guide them through the uncertain terrain.

Turning to scouts or guides is not a bad strategy, provided the hired experts have some kind of track record of success, something that is a bit difficult to ascertain, as it requires some separation of fact from fiction.

3. Incubation and Aha!

Most models of creative problem-solving include an incubation stage during which the mind is given time and latitude to toy with the challenge at hand. Much of this playful consideration will occur unconsciously or subconsciously as the mind engages in reverie and daydreaming. Freed from pressure and anxiety, the mind toys with myriad combinations and possibilities, reaching beyond convention and routine to generate promising new ideas, strategies and solutions.

The culture does little to honor the deep time required for this kind of inventive thinking. We are rushed and pressured toward innovation. Can we provide members of our teams some time for such deep thought away from the pressures of daily operations?


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