Asking the Right Question

Monday, December 15, 2008

It may sound trivial, but one of the most valuable skills one can possess is to be able, in any given situation, to ask the right question. This is true whether one is working alone, learning from others, or working with others, trading on his specialized knowledge in exchange for that of other experts.

A couple of examples should illustrate what I mean.

In an article at Fast Company, Keith Hammonds considers the performance of human resources departments, starting off from an example of a particularly bad personnel decision:

A talented young marketing exec accepts a job offer with Time Warner out of business school. She interviews for openings in several departments -- then is told by HR that only one is interested in her. In fact, she learns later, they all had been. She had been railroaded into the job, under the supervision of a widely reviled manager, because no one inside the company would take it.

You make the call: Did HR do its job? On the one hand, it filled the empty slot. "It did what was organizationally expedient," says the woman now. "Getting someone who wouldn't kick and scream about this role probably made sense to them. But I just felt angry." She left Time Warner after just a year. (A Time Warner spokesperson declined to comment on the incident.)

Part of the problem is that Time Warner's metrics likely will never catch the real cost of its HR department's action. Human resources can readily provide the number of people it hired, the percentage of performance evaluations completed, and the extent to which employees are satisfied or not with their benefits. But only rarely does it link any of those metrics to business performance. [bold added]
Note that the management at Time-Warner evidently isn't (or wasn't) asking the right question of its human resources department, and was likely being blinded by a blizzard of facts driven by the wind of an implicit assumption behind what its human resources department was supposed to be doing. The metrics were there, but they were worse than useless because they did not address the right question!

Unfortunately for them, a filled personnel slot does not necessarily translate into a higher profit margin. Hammond takes a step back from the immediate problem, and asks the right question in the last sentence of the above excerpt. Note that even in a less extreme example, with a less "ethically challenged" HR department, asking the right question frames the criteria by which to judge the job performance of an entire department, and perhaps could have prevented the above scenario from ever happening at all.

Asking the right particular question is no less important than asking the right general question, as another example from the world of job hunting will show. (Yes, I've been doing some reading on the subject. My thanks go to the Resident Egoist for a tip that is going to pay off very well.)
Never agree to an interview until the employer confirms the title of the job you'll be talking about, the date the opening was created, the name and title of the manager you'd be working for, and the deadline for filling the position. Most HR recruiters will act appalled at your request for this information, saying it's confidential. Remember that you are about to invest several hours of your time to be interviewed, so insist on seeing a detailed copy of the job description before you agree to interview, and compare your interview to the documentation. This is a business transaction and you should expect both disclosure and good faith. If you believe a job has been misrepresented, politely but firmly insist on confirmation of the above information. [bold added]
It may sound shocking, but an emerging trend in employment recruiting is to advertise fake job openings in order to generate recruiting leads. Notice again how Nick Corcodilos gets to his implicit question and helps his readers integrate it into the rest of their knowledge: He focuses on the purpose of the job interview, and its nature. You are interested in landing a job -- and, he points out all the time, helping a future employer turn a profit. And an interview is both time from your life and a business transaction.

These examples illustrate several things. First, even for something as conceptually straightforward as a trade, the right question, general or particular, is not always obvious. Second, maintaining the correct context can help you formulate the right question, or at least evaluate what someone else proposes as the right question. Third, you can take advantage of the thinking of others in finding the right questions to ask.

The third point can save one an enormous amount of time, if one does it well. I first encountered this idea -- of seeking out expert advice -- stated explicitly in Jean Moroney's "jump start" Thinking Directions mini-course, where she recommends compiling lists of such questions as one goes along. I think the second point is the way one can best take advantage of what subject matter experts have to say. After all, like Time-Warner's management, they are fallible human beings.

One cannot expect to jump into a new field and immediately see what the best questions are, but one can profit from the past effort and thinking of others -- if those others are prioritizing their questions properly, namely by asking the Granddaddy Question of Them All: "For what purpose?"

It occurred to me as I was reading Nick Corcodilos's work last night that this is what I like about his career and job-hunting advice, and this is what makes it stands out above the rest. That question is always the backdrop, no matter what Corcodilos might be talking about in particular, or on what level of abstraction.

If you can't come up with the right question on your own, look for someone who thinks like him, see what he has to say, and ask yourself whether it integrates with the rest of what you know.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

> ". . . by asking the Granddaddy Question of Them All: 'For what purpose?'"

Your point is exactly on target. Here is an example in a different setting and using different words: Someone asks me an intrusive or merely boring question. In a friendly manner (if possible), I ask in return: "What is your need to know?" Or: "How does this connect up to your highest values?" Or something similar. The usual response, if any, is: "Oh, I was just curious."

Being "just curious" in such situations is a sign of a disintegrated life. Asking oneself "For what purpose?" is a way of integrating knowledge, values, and actions into a hierarchical structure that allows one to live life as a whole, not merely as a heap of momentary experiences.

A second example, which I am dealing with now, is asking, in thinking about future productive activities, "How does this fit into my central purpose in life?" If the answer is, "It doesn't," then I know I need to take a closer look at what I am doing.

Asking the question you have highlighted simplifies and therefore enhances life short-term and long-term.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Asking the question you have highlighted simplifies and therefore enhances life short-term and long-term."

Exactly. In my case, I am nearing the end of the work I need to do in Houston, and so will be more strongly focused on the Boston job search. Thinking in this way (and having a good expert or two in my corner) will save me lots of time and frustration.

Indeed, I wonder a little whether, had I encountered Corcodilos sooner, I would already be done with the job hunt.