When solving a problem seems well and truly hopeless, a certain kind of question can clear roadblocks and boost creative problem-solving. These ultimate questions deserve a permanent place in our conflict resolution and problem-solving toolkits.
The UK cave divers were asked by the American team if they could dive the children out of the flooded cave. The reply: “It can’t be done.”
Twelve boys and their coach were trapped deep inside Tailand’s Tham Luang cave. Monsoon rains had arrived unexpectedly early and their exit filled with water. As water continued to rise, they had no choice but to scramble deeper into the cave system.
You may remember the vigils held by their families and other villagers, the hope against hope that they were still alive. Perhaps you watched live as an international team of cave divers, elite Thai Navy Seals, and engineers — more than 5,000 Thais and hundreds from other countries — worked desperately to find and try to save them.
It wasn’t clear they could be saved. After finding the group alive deep inside the cave system, UK cave diver Rick Stanton swam back to base through the tight cave channels. He said later, “The whole journey back I was thinking, what on earth are we going to do now?”
Engineers managed to divert some water from entering the cave system and set up pumps to try to stay ahead of the pouring rain. They tried to drill into the mountain to create an alternate escape route. Rescuers considered training the boys to dive through the four kilometers of labrynthine flooded channels, some too tight for divers to wear traditional scuba tanks. They considered leaving the boys where they were until monsoon season was over, months later.
But they realized the entire cave would flood. And they were running out of time.
Water levels continued to rise, oxygen levels declined, and some of the boys were starting to get sick from the damp, cold cave conditions. The date by which the cave system usually flooded completely every year was now only days away.
But none of the rescue options seemed remotely possible.
“It can’t be done”
While searching for the children, the UK team had found three municipal workers also trapped in the cave. No one knew they were missing. The workers were trapped not far from the entrance and the team decided to dive them out. It was 30 seconds of sheer panic for each of the municipal workers. One of the cave divers later equated saving them with an underwater wrestling match.
If the workers they’d already rescued couldn’t even hold it together for 30 seconds, how would 12 children and their coach be able to hold it together for the two-and-a-half hours their rescue would require?
It can’t be done, they said.
Master Sergeant Derek Anderson, U.S. dive operations commander, pushed back:
A question like this has incredible power when things seem hopeless — maybe because they seem hopeless.
Creativity researcher Dr. Robert Epstein calls questions like Anderson’s “ultimate questions.”
Ultimate questions push our brains to keep working when we’re failing at a particularly tough problem. They enable us to overcome hopelessness because they temporarily set aside the roadblock created by doubt. This, in turn, sparks creativity.
I’ve written about a version of Anderson’s question before: I know you can’t, but what if you could? It seems like a question that can’t possibly work, yet I’ve seen its power countless times when mediating, coaching, and training.
When we’re good and stuck, we would do well to remember the power of ultimate questions.
The cave divers returned to their hotel for the night. One texted an old friend, fellow cave diver and Australian doctor Richard Harris. “Is it possible to anesthetize the children” to dive them out?
Harris’ first reaction was, “Absolutely not, it’s not possible.” He said later, “I could think of a hundred ways a child would die very quickly” with that option.
Yet the next morning by phone, they began to formulate a plan to anesthetize each child and swim them one and a half miles through a labyrinth that had already claimed the life of Saman Gunan, a former member of the Thai Royal Navy.
The rescue operation began on July 8. Anderson said, “It’s extremely risky. But if you could get one kid back to their parents, that to me would be success.”
In a series of stunningly courageous and complex cave dives, they didn’t just get one kid back to their parents. They saved them all.
In The Rescue, a riveting film recently released by National Geographic Documentary Films, Rear Admiral Apakorn Yuukongkaew, commander of Thailand’s Naval Special Warfare Command, said, “Mission impossible became mission possible.”