Often when people become stuck trying to solve a problem, they are stuck because they are trying to solve the problem in a specific way. They’ve framed the problem in a way that suggests a particular solution, and then taken that specific solution as their goal. The process of taking a specific solution as the goal — a process that my friend James Bach calls “goal displacement” — sometimes constrains the problem in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to solve. That’s when people get stuck.

One of the ways I help people solve problems is to ask a seemingly simple question: If you had that, what would that do for you?

I first learned about this question in Connirae and Tamara Andreas’s profound book Core Transformation: Reaching the Wellspring Within. The Andreases use the question to help individuals discover the positive purpose behind self-defeating behaviors.

I use the question to help people become unstuck in their problem solving. Because the question asks about the value that lies behind any goal or course of action, I call it The Value Question: If you had that, what would that do for you?

Answering The Value Question helps problem solvers become unstuck in two important ways. First, the answer reminds us of the problem we were originally trying to solve. Second, it relieves the constraints that we inadvertently placed on ourselves when we took a particular solution as the goal. When we relieve the constraints, and bring our attention back to the original problem, we often find that the original problem is easier to solve. Other times, we find that the “solution” upon which we’d been fixated would not solve the real problem after all. Though this can be painful, it’s less painful than implementing the “solution” only to find that the problem remains.

Kenneth, an executive responsible for a large project to create a software system to support four of his company’s internal business units, asked me to help his team assess the project’s risks. Before accepting the assignment, I wanted to know more about the background and motivation for the risk assessment. I asked, “If you had an assessment of the risks, what would that do for you?”

Kenneth thought for a moment, then said, “It would make Charlene calm down. Charlene is the director of one of the business units we’re supporting. All of the other directors are happy with what we’re doing, but Charlene is paranoid. She doesn’t trust us. She keeps seeing problems where there aren’t any problems. She’s threatening to bring in a dozen busybody consultants from Coopers & Lybrand to follow us around for six weeks. We can’t handle that kind of disruption. So I want you to do a risk assessment to get Charlene off my back!”

So Kenneth’s goal was not assessing risks. His goal was to “get Charlene to stop disrupting the project.” As Kenneth and I talked, it became clear that any risk assessment that I led, no matter how thorough, would be unlikely to persuade Charlene that the project was under control. Might it help the team control the risks? Maybe, but Kenneth was convinced that the risks were very small and controllable. In his mind, the problem was not risks, but Charlene’s paranoia.

So we abandoned the risk assessment, and talked about some ways that Kenneth might create a more effective relationship with Charlene.

Answering The Value Question helps you to focus on your real goal, and keeps you from wasting time on ineffective, expensive non-solutions.

Experiment: Think of a goal that you are having trouble achieving. Ask yourself The Value Question. “If I achieve __________, what will that do for me?”

Experiment: Think of a change that you are promoting, and that people are resisting. Ask yourself The Value Question. “If these people make this change, what will that do for me?”

Experiment: Notice that when you answer The Value Question about some goal, your answer is also a goal. Imagine that this goal is a solution to an even more important goal. Ask The Value Question again. “If I achieve __________ (this goal), what will that do for me that is even more important?” Notice that this answer is also a goal, and ask The Value Question again. Repeat as many times as you can answer.