Ask the right question, get the right answer

Talked about this during a lunch I went to with Brent Huston (web, twitter) and he asked me had I done a write up on this ... and I haven't so I shall.  It's a good piece of info that I think everyone should master - Ask the right question, get the right answer.  This pays off in so many ways, it isn't funny and you can use it and abuse it everywhere, in everyday life.  This isn't a great theory that doesn't work in reality, this is a basic foundational requirement.  Yes, I feel very strongly about this and Brent suggested I should write up how I managed to teach it so here goes.

I hinted at this when I mentioned a good friend of mine, Jay Saunders, was graduating.  I tortured him for a solid 2 months (probably more), teaching him this practice.  When he started, I told him the number one thing was teaching him how to ask the right questions.  Purpose being is multi-layered.  First, without asking the right questions, you waste a lot of time figuring out what they (the users) really mean.  Second, if you take a minute to think about what you really want, you also should think of the possible reactions of the person being asked -- I will come back to this because there's a lot of nasty pitfalls that need to be addressed.  Third, it forces a different thought process and finally, the real goal, it forces the person being asked to NOT give a wrong answer.

So take the following example.  A given shop has three types of printers and two locations to store toner.  Jay comes in and asks "hey, where do we keep the toner?".  In and of itself this is a fair question, but it expects the recipient to assume some information and therefore gives the person the possibility of giving a wrong answer ... so of course I gave him the wrong one.  A few minutes later, Jay returned to inform me that no toner was found -- I suggested he may want to ask the question again but don't give me the option of giving him a wrong answer.  "Do you know if we're out of toner?" -- this still isn't the right question, so I told him to ask again.  This frustrated him to no end.  Realizing he was to this point, I asked him what he wanted to do.  The conversation went something like this...

"I need to get some toner so they can print"
What toner?
:confused: "Toner for the printer"
What printer?
"The HP 4000"
Now ask your question again, and don't let me have the option to give you a wrong answer.
".... Are we out of toner for the HP 4000s?"
No, we got a ton of it, probably 20-30 of 'em.  Now ask what you really want.
"Ok ... where are the toners for the HP 4000s?"

This is a far more exact question with only one answer.  It's not offensive nor disruptive, it just contains the recipient to answer one way, the correct way.  Even if the answer is "I don't know", it's still a RIGHT answer.  Fast forward a month or so where he was starting to apply it -- and it got rather amusing.  Jay would come by my office and begin to ask a question, stop, and ask again but with no option for me to give him a wrong answer.  I would laugh when he would stop mid-sentence because I knew he was using what I had taught him.  As this became more natural, his interaction with the users became a lot more effective.  They can't give wrong answers but it doesn't stop them from being misinformed. :)

There is one problem with this approach and also my bit of warning.  When teaching this, it must be explained that it is NOT to put words into someones mouth, nor "already know what the problem is".  It's not a bad thing to say its probably X or Y but that's not known, so do not anticipate an answer.  If you anticipate, this reduces your ability to listen and will result in hearing what you want to hear instead of listening to what was said.  That's something that NEVER comes naturally and has to be learned and actively practiced.

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