There are a wide ranging set of power-move questions that can be asked during a meeting. “What’s the Problem?” is a classic example of the type.
As with all powerful things, it can be used for good, or for ill. If you bring it into play, then try to always be the first and be prepared to defend against the second.
When you use it for good, then you reset a conversation that has dived into detail or solution mode too quickly. It’s really powerful when people are pitching a particular feature or asking for something specific, but they haven’t shown why doing it that way is important.
So you can pull back, understand the problem and confirm if the proposed action is really the best solution to the question on the table. It lets you check the foundations of the argument are sound, and that the work done to get to the solution is solid. If it’s not a sound request, then you are able to a put a pause in place to get to the right final outcome.
The flip side is when someone tries to use this move to derail a fruitful conversation. Maybe they feel like their voice hasn’t been heard and they don’t like the direction that’s been agreed on. Possibly they are only just now paying attention and have missed the discussion up to this point. Sometimes, they just want to feel clever at having made a serious sounding contribution.
To reduce the incidence of the question, lay the groundwork ahead of time. Give out pre-reading as part of the agenda that sets the scene and discusses the problem space. Cover what’s been tried, what’s discarded and what’s on the table now. Next, prep the 90 second summary for the start of the meeting. Outline the problem, share the constraints and set the scene, “This is a meeting to solve this problem”.
Now anyone asking what the problem is can be pointed back to the opening statements, keeping the meeting focused on the solution.
If they disagree it’s the problem to be solved, that’s a different conversation to have. This might be raised early in the session, or they might wait to ask “What’s the real problem here?”. In either case, you can pause quickly and ask what they meant by the question. At attempt to obstruct or bring a new agenda is likely at this point, so ask if there’s any fresh information to consider, and if not, you can thank them for their question, point back to the opening statements and then move on.
If there is fresh information, then it might be an ambush. Something critical to the decision making has been left off the table until the last minute. This is a difficult area to navigate, as whilst the person bringing the info may not be acting collaboratively, the information itself might still be vital.
You’ll need to think carefully about how to handle the conversation, but don’t lose your cool. Thank the person for their contribution, then consider if it’s significant enough to change the parameters of the meeting. If it is, then it’s better to postpone the decision until we’ve included the new info into our parameters. If this happens once it’s something you can handle with private feedback. If it’s a pattern of behaviour, then that’s a time you need to share the impact with the person’s manager, to bring them back to collaborative decision making and proactive information sharing.
Asking “What’s the problem?” can defend you against moving to solutions too quickly, meaning you get to a better final outcome. Use it with care, and understand how to protect yourself from those that ask it with bad intent.