Strategy Through the Lens of Language

Like many languages, Chinese does not differentiate between the concepts of problem and question.  Those two concepts, which are arguably distinct in English, share the same noun in Mandarin.  To me, this highlights the fundamental semantic similarities between the two concepts:

  • A problem represents a discrepancy that exists between the way the world is and the way the world should be.
  • A question represents a discrepancy that exists between what I know, and what I believe I should know.

Often we use terms such as “problem” or “question” as synecdoche, to represent a larger collection of concepts through a small subset of those concepts.  In this case, the existence of a problem or question typically also implies the existence of two other unique concepts that often coexist within the portfolio management space:

  • The solution (or answer) which resolves the discrepancy between the current state and the desired future state.
  • A sense of values that drive the recognition of the discrepancy.  Without a value that tells us this is wrong, we would merely accept what is.  Values are the engine that drive us from the is to the should be.

When we say the words “problem,” or “solution,” we are really referring to the entire solution space that consists of values, problem sensing, problem recognition, and the solution.  It’s just typically we don’t like to be so long-winded, and just talk about the solution while leaving everything else implied or assumed to be understood by the people we are working with.

This concept comes to the fore when we start talking about organizational strategy.  In fact, I would submit that most (if not all) organizations exist to solve a problem….to answer a question.  An organization is an answer writ physical, i.e. a long term solution to a problem that has become a sustained system.  Thus, the study of answers has a lot to do with the study of organizations.  The original question is the raison d’être for the organization. The original question is the urQuestion, the fundamental driving force of the organization.


Once we think we have an answer to the urQuestion, we need to start adding detail to the discussion.


As that detail evolves, it comes to represent the complexity of the modern organization.


Each time a new question is identified, a new subsystem is spawned, and before you know it, the organization is a forest of questions and disparate answers.  Each new solution answers a part of the question, and hopefully, assists in answering the urQuestion.

Portfolio analysis, and in fact almost all consulting, is often involved with identifying the questions on the right side of the diagram, and then gradually working all the way back to the left, so that the solution on the right can be traced to how it contributes to organizational purpose on the left.  This is providing context to value.  Without context, solutions have no value.  Without an understanding of how the solution gets the organization closer to answering the urQuestion, the solution has no real value – only perceived value.

Once we develop this model of an organization, that begs a couple of fundamental questions….

Can the urQuestion Change?

It’s almost inevitable that over a period of time, the urQuestion will shift from the original question to something other.  This is the result of change both within the organization and without.  As the organization becomes a self-sustaining system, or the proverbial solution in search of a problem, it starts to naturally look for other questions to answer.

The trick is periodically to reassess the organization and to recognize that this shift has happened – then to review all of the other answers that comprise the organization, and identify if they still tie back to the new urQuestion.  Each answer represents a system, which becomes self-sustaining and resistant to eradication.  In many older companies, you’ll see these systems proliferate with little or no link back to the organizational purpose.  As the company ages, the risk increases that each of these subsystems becomes baggage weighing down the overall construct.

The urQuestion as an Artificial Teleological Construct

This then leads us to another potential issue.  What if, despite our best efforts, after all of the requirements elicitations, interviews, and reviews, we still have not been able to uncover the urQuestion because it in fact does not exist, or nobody remembers what it fundamentally was?  Perhaps there was never an identifiable managerial incantation that caused the organization to spring into existence.  In such circumstances, it would certainly be natural human behavior to attempt to create structure where no structure exists, and to simply create an urQuestion.

Thus, the urQuestion may actually simply exist as a teleological construct, a mental overlay of what we perceive the organization should be striving for.  That still makes it none the less valid as a guide to making strategic decisions.

…which brings us back to the original concept.  If we treat problems as being synonymous with questions, and if  we treat organizations as physical representations of solutions to problems, then we can apply the study of questioning to the study of organizations.  We can translate the structure of an organization into a series of linguistic constructs.

Strategy Through the Lens of Language

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