Asking better questions, getting better insight

Over the past few months I have been using a model that Nick Milton shared on his blog, to help people understand that the knowledge activities they have traditionally espoused only tell half the story.

I have reservationas about the tacit/explicit distinction, but that is irrelevant for now. The key thing for me is that there is a clear and meaningful difference between systems and tools that push knowledge to people and the activities that develop people’s ability to pull knowledge at the moment of need.

In another post, Nick describes advising an organisation which had over-emphasised the push side of the table. I think many law firms are in this position now. We have developed vast banks of precedents, practice notes, process guides, checklists and so on; and we have encouraged in our lawyers a dependency on these things. To a point, this is all good. These tools help people to dispose efficiently of the work that should not require great thought. But what about those areas where great thought is required. How do we build people’s capability to get to the insight and expertise that will help them solve the trickier problems that clients bring?

We can throw technology at the problem again — search engines will allow people to draw on the vast pool of work that has already been done. Sometimes that will disclose a really useful document that contains just the right information to help the lawyer arrive at a suitable answer. More often, though, it will produce nothing at all or many documents none of which actually help directly. Those many documents may, however, help to identify the right people to ask for help.

So it comes back to asking. Nick Milton has made this point in a couple of posts on his blog this week. The more recent post, “Asking in KM, when and how?”, identifies a number of situations in which asking might be institutionalised: communities of practice, after action reviews, and retrospects; but it doesn’t get to the heart of the question. What does good asking look like?

Fortunately, help is at hand. (The topic must be in the air at the moment for some reason.) Ron Ashkenas, in an HBR blog post, “When the Help You Get Isn’t Helpful“, explores what happens when someone shares their knowledge in a way that is actually useless.

Consider John, an account executive who is contemplating how to expand into a new market segment — one that is wrought with regulatory challenges. With a puzzled look on his face, he walks past Samantha, who asks, “Are you okay?” John responds, “Not really, I’m trying to figure out how to gain access for more of our products into Latin America.” Samantha immediately runs to her office and returns with a 100-page analytical report detailing the region. She then spends the next ten minutes going over a how-to guide on conducting market research. Out of respect to Samantha, John patiently listens. But despite her good intentions, Samantha’s input is counterproductive. John might have benefited from Samantha’s time if she had focused on solving his regulatory conundrum. Instead, John walks away feeling even more frustrated and perplexed.

What happened here? John presented Samantha with a problem, and she offered help. I suspect this kind of unfocused response is common. I know I have been guilty of it in the past, and I suspect I will be again in the future. The difficulty is that people are actually very poor at asking questions. Why that might be is a conundrum for a different time. Fortunately, Ron Ashkenas has some guidance to get better at asking.

Target your requests. Instead of asking whoever is available, intentionally target certain individuals. Create a list of people who have access to resources, information, and relevant experience about your problem. Expand your list to include friends and colleagues who tend to challenge the norm and see the world differently. Make a point of including people who are likely to have useful views but you might hesitate to approach because you think they are too busy or wouldn’t be interested.

Frame your question. Before asking for input, figure out what you really need: What kind of advice are you looking for? What information would be useful? Are there gaps in your thinking? Then consider how to frame your question so that you solicit the right advice.

Redirect the conversation. If the person offering advice jumps to conclusions, be prepared to redirect them. Most people will not be offended if you politely refocus them. For instance, had John interrupted Samantha’s lecture on market research by saying, “The issue isn’t our understanding of the market, it’s how to deal with the area’s regulatory restrictions. That’s where I could use some help,” Samantha could have spent the next ten minutes firing off some useful ideas.

This doesn’t feel like rocket science. Frequently, however, I see people asking quite open-ended questions in the hope that something useful will pop up. I suspect that what actually happens is that those with the knowledge to assist don’t answer precisely because the question is too vague. Yet again, the key to good a outcome here is the same as it is in many other contexts. Careful preparation and clarity of scope will generate the answer you need. (It is also important to be comfortable with the possibility that there is no answer. If you are precise and clear, the fact that no answer is forthcoming is much more likely to be an accurate reflection of there being no answer available at all.)

I think this is an iterative process:

  • Work out exactly what you need to know. What is the gap in your understanding that needs to be filled in order to resolve the issue raised by your client?
  • Who is the best person to answer that question? Do you know that person already, or will you need to seek advice from others? Plan how to ask the right question to identify that person.

Repeat until satisfied…

2 thoughts on “Asking better questions, getting better insight

  1. Thanks for the referrals!

    I am glad that the model has been useful to you – it is a good way of getting people to question their default approach.

    There’s one more missing step in the example you quote from Ron, and that is the step of clarifying the question. Sure, John could have asked a better question (actually, he didnt ask a qiuestion at all). But also Samantha could have asked a clarification. “what sort of access issues are you worried about John?”

    See my blog post on “questioning the question”
    http://www.nickmilton.com/2011/03/questioning-question.html

    The worst examples of the behaviour you mention – namely answering the question you think should have been asked rather than the question that actually was asked – are seen on social media such as Linked-In, where conversations consist of a series of declarative statements, often irrelevant to the original post.

    See here
    http://www.nickmilton.com/2011/09/online-forums-discussion-or-serial.html

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