The right question … or the right answer?

No one wants to look dumb.  Everyone wants to have an answer.   Preferably, of course, the right answer – but at least an answer.

I see it all the time.  People rushing wildly towards an answer.

There’s a classic story of how NASA developed an extremely expensive pen that would allow astronauts to write in the zero gravity of space.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, sent their cosmonauts off with pencils.

The Soviet Union was clearly asking a different question than NASA.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, she told me how her company is choosing a new technical platform – and she’s concerned because she doesn’t feel they understand enough about how their clients will actually use this new platform.

They may find a very good answer to the question they’re asking – which technical platform – and yet it may be an answer that turns out to be expensively wrong … because they’re not asking the right question.

Finding the Right Question

It’s not always easy to know what the right question is – especially when you’re in the middle of the situation.

One hint is that the questions that seem easy and fun and intriguing … may well be the wrong questions.  “What technical platform should we pick?” is a very fun question.  People get to go off and comparison shop, looking at the various capabilities of different tools and generally having a grand old time.

Digging into what customers want and how they’ll use something that’s not even fully defined or designed yet … isn’t so much fun for most people.  (I happen to adore these sorts of questions, but then, I’m a bit odd that way.)  For many people, especially those who love poking into technical tools, understanding customers’ motivations, wants, and needs seems … fuzzy.  Cloudy.  Murky.  Unsettling.  Touchy-feely.  And hard.

And it can also feel dangerous.  Because you might learn something you don’t really want to know.

And that’s another hint:  What don’t you want to know?

Is there a question out there whose answer could wreak significant changes in what you’re working on?

Those are the right questions:  the ones that feel weird and fuzzy, the ones where the answer might even mean starting from scratch.   The questions that scare you and that you don’t really want to look at.

When you’re chasing answers to the fun questions, it’s easy to think that the people who are waving their hands and saying wait! stop! there’s something else to think about here are being overly cautious and dragging their feet.

But whether it’s someone on your team, or that little voice in your head … it’s worth listening to.

At the very least, pause and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this question the right question being asked at the right time?  (After all, the choice of technical platform does need to be decided at some point.)
  2. What is there in this situation that I don’t want to know?  What answers might arise that will cause a significant change in what I’m doing?
  3. Am I only asking the easy, fun questions?  Is there a hard, uncomfortable question that I’m avoiding looking at?

You’ll notice that these questions overlap in some ways.  That’s intentional.   They create different perspectives on the same view – like different windows in your house that all look out at the same back yard.

I can tell you that I’ve learned to stop and listen before leaping to an answer.  I’ve learned that the quiet voice inside has a lot more wisdom than my eager-to-solve-problems mind.

How about you?  What’s been your experience?