I'm feeling a little zen-like lately, so I thought another venture into understanding a problem or circumstance might be in order. Personal and team productivity comes from mastering a particular skill or having a deep understanding of the problem. Often, we are faced with situations where we must make decisions or take action with little information. To compound the problem, we may have little mastery of the challenge. After all, we can't all be experts in everything. In these cases, it's a good idea to get a deeper understanding of the problem before moving forward.
One of the best ways I've found to gain a deeper understanding of a problem or challenge is to simply start asking the question "Why?". Why is this a problem? Why has it become a problem? Why has it been allowed to become a problem? Why hasn't this been addressed before? All of these questions begin to dance around the periphery of the underlying root causes. However, a truly thoughtful individual will begin to deconstruct the challenge or problem in an even more systematic approach.
A Japanese quality engineer named Ishikawa invented an approach called the cause and effect diagram (also known as the fishbone diagram and/or the Ishikawa diagram). In it the main problem to be evaluated is documented, and then procedurally deconstructed by asking why. Each "bone" or branch in the diagram evolves and leads to another "why" question until one arrives at the root problem. You can read about the Ishikawa diagram and asking "why" on several websites - here's one I thought was useful, but there are plenty of others.
I'm advocating the "ask why three times" approach as a method to gain deeper understanding of problems or challenges before you start working. As you confront a challenge or a problem in which you lack expertise, gain understanding by a systematic evaluation and deconstruction of the challenge, the root causes and potential solutions. By gaining a deeper understanding of the symptoms and the root causes, your approach will become signifcantly clearer and you will be able to move more decisively and productively to address the challenge.
Asking why may seem insignificant, almost child-like in a way, because it bucks all convention. We are educated, experienced people and are expected to know what to do. Asking questions often looks like a sign of weakness. Done correctly, it is a sign of strength, admitting that you may not have the answers but are smart enough to gain more insight before plowing ahead.
When expertise is lacking, gain insight before action. Thus ends the lesson, grasshopper.