From the archive: The “critical three” – 3 questions to ask about any new policy

Laura McInerney /   January 15, 2013 at 8:32 PM 3,673 views


Whenever anyone asks for advice  – whether about a policy, opening a new school, starting a business, using a new teaching technique, whatever – my questioning line is always the same:

(1) What problem are you trying to solve?

(2) What makes you think this particular solution will solve that particular problem?

(3) If you’re so sure that this solution works, why aren’t people doing it already?

Amazingly people falter on all three.

For question 1 the most common pitfall is telling me the *benefit* of the policy, school, business. That’s irrelevant. What I want to know is the problem. Concorde had the benefit of flying its passengers from London to New York in under three hours but it bombed because no-one cared enough to fork out the ridiculous amount of cash it cost to make the journey that quick. Unless your policy ideas is solving a need you will rely on a ridiculous amount of marketing to make people think that they need to the idea then – at some point – people will figure out that the need you injected into them probably isn’t worth the amount of money they are outlaying. Always, always be solving a problem otherwise you are wasting time.

If people can answer question 1, they can usually answer question 2. Usually, though; not always. I once worked in a school where teachers failed to deal with children’s behaviour because the process for recording problems was laborious. The senior leadership team decided that moving the system online would improve the situation. Except, the amount of information required was still the same, only now a teacher also had to: find a computer, be in the same place for 15 minutes while the computer loaded, then spend 5 minutes finding the file from a shrouded corner of the school’s U Drive before starting the laborious information filling. The problem was that putting someone on detention took too long because of the amount of information required. The solution was therefore to make the process shorter not simply to put it online. If your solution doesn’t solve the problem your face, your idea is bunkum.

Finally – and this is the one where most people fall down – why, oh why, if your idea is so brilliantly fabulous and wonderful hasn’t it been tried before? “No-one has thought of it yet” is not an adequate answer. Given the many people to have walked upon the earth and encounter the same frustrations as you, the idea that “no-one has thought of it” is unlikely. What is possible is that: (a) you didn’t have the right technology before, or (b) the current situation occurred because of a crotchety power-mad individual(s) with ridiculous ideas but they have now been removed or sufficiently wooed into changing, (c) someone left a job half-finished, (d) someone didn’t have the courage or political support to do what you are suggesting, and so on. Without understanding the reasons why your idea has not been tried, however, you run one of two risks (1) it has been tried and it was a total disaster which you are likely to repeat again, or (2) no-one has tried it because there is a glaring hole not currently obvious to you in your idealistic stupor but which will trip you up as soon as you give the green light for implementation.

When creating new things, no idea is fail-proof. The “Critical Three” Questions won’t save you from a confluence of events that could strike down your good idea, but they can at least help ensure that – from the outset – the idea has some worth on which to base any of your gainful efforts.

Courtesy of Laura McInerney

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