What’s the Right Question for a Better Answer?

QuestionsThey say that getting the right answer depends upon asking the right question. Perhaps that works in the courtroom, but lately I’ve begun to wonder how well it works in our networked world.

Here’s a case in point: I was puzzling through a technical problem and realized I needed the input of an expert. So I contacted an expert to set up a meeting. Mindful of the many demands on his time, I carefully thought through my problem and sent him before the meeting a list of the questions whose I answers I thought would solve my problem.

As soon as we sat down to discuss my questions I realized that I had made a critical mistake. By setting out the questions beforehand, I had limited the range of answers and set up false boundaries for our conversation. Now we could ultimately have reached the right answers, but he would be forced to first answer and dispose of my questions before we could progress past the limits of my knowledge to get to the heart of the problem. And he would have to clear this path through the undergrowth because I had insufficient expertise to frame the problem with sufficient precision.

Thankfully, I saved us both this slog through the undergrowth by changing course on the spot. Just as he pulled out my list of questions and prepared to answer the first one, I apologized to him and asked him to put the list away. I explained that while I had the best of intentions when I sent him the questions, it was the wrong approach. Instead, since I didn’t know enough to articulate the problem properly, I would explain what I wanted to accomplish (and why) and describe the roadblocks in my way.  Then I would leave it to my expert to draw on his knowledge appropriately to help me achieve my goal.

The fruitful conversation that followed proved my intuition correct. The right answer was within the expert’s range of knowledge, not mine. In fact, my careful questions would have led us down the garden path to a dead end. By throwing away the questions and focusing on my goal, I immediately tapped into the full range of my expert’s experience rather than restricting us to that part of his experience that seemed most directly applicable to my questions. I also got him invested in the ultimate goal rather than merely focused on answering a discrete set of questions.

Now, why does this matter in a networked world? Because limiting the conversation at the start limits the opportunities and insights available through your network. As much as I might dress it up in good intentions,the reality is that the questions I sent the expert were an attempt to control the conversation and the outcome. Granted, it was done in the name of efficiency, but ultimately would have resulted in inefficiency. The more efficient and effective method was to give up the command-and-control approach in favor of a more open and collaborative attitude that acknowledged the strengths of my colleague and the limits of my ability to control. For those of us raised in a command-and-control organization this open approach can seem risky, but it is the best way to tap the tacit knowledge of your network.

True collaboration results in something better than just my answer or yours. But to get to that better answer, you might need to throw away your questions and focus instead on a goal worth sharing.

[Photo Credit: Oberazzi]


2 thoughts on “What’s the Right Question for a Better Answer?

  • March 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Questions, questions, questions.  Almost anything we say in conversations lead us down pathways and are loaded with assumptions.  The beauty of your story here is that you discovered your lack of knowledge was pushing you in the wrong direction right away.

    I also see your story as an example of a mentality of limits (in this case, limits on the expert’s time).  In the networked world, the nature of those limits change.  And we can start asking questions differently.  We can even ask our networks what questions we should be asking to learn more about a given topic – which of course leads to more questions.  [And this reminds me of diverging / converging in learning: diverging to see the scope, converging on a specific point.]

  • March 24, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    Jack –

    Thanks so much for your comment. As usual, you’ve given me lots of good stuff to think about here. For example, the concept of the mentality of limits. So much of what we do is informed by our perception of limits. I wonder what would change if we operated from a perception of abundance?

    – Mary

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