Learn How to Ask the Right Questions!

ask-question-2One thing that sets high-performing individuals and teams apart from lower performing teams is experience. Experience is a shortcut. It saves time. It helps you skip the time and effort required to research a particular problem. Experience lets you cut directly to the solution.

Experience allows you to skip the questions.

Unfortunately, experience can also give you a false sense of security. You feel secure that you know all of the answers to the relevant questions, that you know the complete context of the problem. You assume that nothing has changed since you have last evaluated the problem space.

That assumption can be wrong, and detrimental to your work.

A Short Story

storytellerSo, once upon a time, about a month or so ago, I was running a hackathon with a team of developers. They were a great team, coming together for the first time in the organization’s history to solve a problem agilely, that is to say, all hands on deck – developers, testers, operations engineers, and the product owner sitting together – working together towards a shared common goal, to the exclusion of all other unrelated tasks.

At some point we realized that we have a dilemma regarding the form of the output of our feature. The default way, the way that their primary customer has established with them a long time ago, and the way that they have been working ever since, was to provide a full “baseline” dataset, in the form of a CSV file, and then provide daily “modification files”, i.e. files that add new records or remove the old ones.

The problem was that we now have to support not just the primary customer but many other customers, some so small that they have little in the way of an IT department capable of writing a process to take monthly baselines and apply daily changes automatically. The solution that some of the team came up with was to send them full daily datasets. Each day they were to use the new CSV as the sole source of truth. These small customers could consume the full daily files with Excel, with no additional IT work needed.

Of course, a lively discussion ensued. Part of the team said that we cannot change how things work because our primary customer relies on it. The other half argued that the many smaller new customers simply cannot deal with the “old way”.

After letting them discuss it for a while I proposed we call the customer representative. The team leader did. After a short introduction, referring to the new feature (which they’ve previously discussed), the team leader, a proponent of the old solution asked “do you want us to send you the files in the same way we did before with the other features, that is monthly baseline with daily changes?” The customer representative said that “yes, it would be fine”.

I thought about it for a moment. Our many new smaller customers needed a different solution. We needed to reframe the question. I asked the team leader to relay the following question to the customer: “Would it be acceptable if instead of using the old method we’ve had before, for this feature we will send full daily datasets?”

The customer representative’s response was, and I believe I am quoting her verbatim, as follows:

“Oh my god, yes! That would be so much simpler for us to implement on our end!”

High-fives and fist bumps were had across the entire room. Team spirits went up dramatically.

The Moral

man-looking-to-question-markThe team leader was very experienced with the system we were modifying, and very familiar with the customer. They talked with one another regularly. This blinded him from the simple truth that while the current solution was acceptable, a better solution would be greatly appreciated.

The rule I drew from this experience is this – if you want to change something, never immediately assume that current conditions are immutable. If you’ve never discussed the possibility to change, you cannot know whether others – your partners, customers, teammates, or managers – would resist, or the reverse – enthusiastically gush and support the change. Perhaps they feel the same pain that you do, the pain driving your desire for change, and merely lack the initiative to stand up and do something about it.

In short, don’t hesitate to ask. Phrase the question in a way that benefits you, and highlights the change you wish to make. It cannot hurt. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results!

About Assaf Stone

My name is Assaf Stone. I'm a senior ALM consultant in Microsoft's Premier Support for Developers Team. When not being kept busy by work, my wife, or my four kids, I like to practice archery, read books, and listen to 70's and 80's rock music. I would also like to just relax, if I had any more spare time!
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.