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From the Kitchen Table

Changing the Question

by Peg Luksik

There is an exercise that is often presented to students called the "Lifeboat". In the exercise, there is a lifeboat with ten people in it. The students are given a bio of each of the people, and then told that only nine will fit in the boat. They are instructed to decide who must be tossed out of the boat so the remaining nine people will survive.

Over the years, students have struggled with the task of deciding who should live and who should die. As the exercise proceeds, the class then discusses the decision of each student. No student is comfortable with the task, but most do not know how to escape the horrible decision-making process the exercise requires.

But one time, a student came into class with a different answer. This student offered the possibility of using clothing to make a rope, and then letting each passenger swim behind the boat for a one hour shift. With this approach, there are never more than nine people in the boat at one time, and no one has to die.
The class listened to this new solution, and suddenly they had a variety of other options that would allow all ten passengers to survive. The professor asked why the new options had not been offered first, and the students replied that no one had asked them to come up with solutions that would save every life. They had been asked to choose a life to end, and they had focused on answering the question that had been asked.

The student with the new approach had changed the question. Instead of asking which life to end, that student had asked himself how to save every life. When the question changed, the answer did as well.

Today, the federal government looks at every situation by asking, "How can Washington deal with this"? When that is the question, the answer will always revolve around a federal program or policy. No one stops to even consider any other alternative because human minds tend to focus on the question that has been asked.

The Washington establishment works hard to make that sure that no one stops to think about the fact that they are controlling the underlying question. Everything is a crisis that must be immediately solved, so no one is given time to thoroughly evaluate any situation.

But what if we took the time? What if we changed the question? What if we asked, "Should Washington be dealing with this" instead of just assuming that only Washington has the answers we seek?

All of sudden, things would look very different. Washington involvement would not be a given, it would just by one option among many. The federal government would have to prove that it was the best equipped entity to solve the particular problem being investigated. And in many cases, it would not be considered the most effective option.

If we truly want to change the direction that America has been taking in the past decades, we need to begin by following the example of the student in that classroom. We need to change the questions that we ask.

Imagine the new and incredible solutions we could find if we did.

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