The Importance of Questions

I’m currently doing some coaching work with Regina, a new project manager working with a small team of web developers at a community development organization in Toronto.  We had our first session last week. Regina was having trouble getting started on a particular project and I shared with her some of the Agile methods of creating a prioritized Cycle Plan, breaking it down into small tasks, etc.

Regina seems to be finding Agile methods helpful in general, but there was a special kind of interaction that we had around removing an obstacle that was particularly interesting for me.  It had to do with an email she received from Peter, a developer working on one of the websites she’s managing. Regina shared a concern that she didn’t know some of the technical terms Peter was using.  So I had her read through the email and form questions around the points she wasn’t clear about – i.e., “what are buttons?” and I wrote them down as she was speaking.

I then suggested that she compose a reply email containing the same set of questions.  Regina’s eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, “Oh yeah – that’s so obvious!”  I went on to mention that another option would be to go and do some research on her own but that there were some valuable advantages in asking Peter directly, particularly in terms of team-building, that may not be as immediately apparent as asking the questions solely for the purpose of having them answered.  Here are a few:

First, it’s a way forRegina to remind Peter that she does not have a technical background and that he should not assume that she is familiar with web-lingo.  Second, it also reminds him that she is a different person from the last manager he was working with and subtly reinforces that it’s important that they get to know each other as two individual human beings and learn to work together effectively.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives Peter an opportunity to help someone else on the team learn something new, and by doing so, contribute to the culture of learning on the team.  Fourth, and perhaps most obviously, it promotes open lines of clear communication on the team.

(Of course, if the team was colocated, which it is not, lack of communication would be much less of an obstacle!)

Asking questions in the interest of learning makes it visible to others that you don’t know everything.  For some people, this presents a dilemma.  What makes it a dilemma is that asking meaningful questions is something that many people aren’t able to do well.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is a learnable skill requiring the capabilities of truthfulness, humility and courage.  Such capabilities – let’s call them moral capabilities – can themselves be developed through conscious, focused effort.

Someone in the position of a newly hired manager, or a veteran manager with a new team, who lacks these capabilities may feel that it is important to present to a team a persona of all-knowingness.  But, of course, this is false and the truth of one’s degree of knowledge and capability, or lack thereof, soon becomes apparent anyway.  Clearly, this person needs to do some honest hard work to develop some humility, but truthfulness and courage are still often major factors.

Or maybe you’re the kind of person (like Regina) who just doesn’t want to bother anyone.  In this case, humility is not necessarily lacking, but truthfulness – and perhaps most of all courage – may need some attention.  Concepts around moral capabilities deserve much more elaboration, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

To sum it up, if you are open and clear in the way you ask questions, people will tend to appreciate it and will trust you more in the end.  Moreover, it can have a transformative effect on the environment of the team.  When your team members realize that you are not afraid to ask questions and be truthful about your lack of knowledge in a certain area, it will encourage them to be more truthful about their own capabilities.  Not to mention that most people feel good when they are able to help others.  When your team members feel safe to ask for help and free to help each other, it is empowering for everyone.

Asking meaningful questions, therefore, is an essential aspect of learning together, and nothing is a more powerful contributor to the success of an organization than a team that learns as a team.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Questions”

  1. Fantastic post, and I couldn’t agree more! My wife has often found herself in a position, as project manager, where her non-technical background is in sharp contrast to the gear-heads with whom she’s working. In each and every instance, she’s made it work wonderfully well by simply being upfront and honest with the techies about what she does and doesn’t understand, and as you point out in the article, that almost inevitably “rubs off” and results in an atmosphere where everyone is more willing to admit when they’re unclear about something. It’s a fantastically “win-win” approach that I really wish more people would employ!

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