Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Power of Simple Questions

I caught this essay on the radio the other day on the power of simple questions. Take a listen:

The quick version goes as follows. Our essayist and hero gets himself into a tight spot at a new high school:

Part way through the lunch period, a tall, muscular, black student, whom I’ll call Jake, walked over and stood across from me. He put his hands on the table and leaned forward. With his face close to mine, he firmly said, “Aren’t you sitting with the wrong kind of people?”
Immediately, my fight-or-flight response kicked into high gear. What should I do? Should I defend myself? Should I let him intimidate me and undermine my self-respect? The other students suddenly became quiet, waiting for my response. Jake had laid down the gauntlet....

And his solution? Ask the simple question: “What do you mean, the wrong kind of people?”

The question turns out to be a totally disarming one, that defuses the situation quite cleanly.

At first, I didn't think much about this essay. But, as I ponder it more and more, I realized just how right the author is. I realized, for example, that as a manager one of the most valuable exercises I would conduct was to ask myself of a team member: What do I want? I mean, really, truly, want from this person? I found that my initial answer was often vague and not something that could be measured (say, "Be a better programmer" - but better than what?). I would then re-ask the question to myself, and try to come up with a better and better answer.

Often times, I'd find, that what I wanted from the team member wasn't even something they could give me. Or, maybe it was a frustration that was really my responsibility (say, I realize that they can't give me clean code because I keep changing the spec on them).

Yeah, this essayist is really onto to something. Simple questions do have power. Especially when you accept that they frequently don't have simple answers.

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