Friday, July 2, 2010

How Would You Answer?

A few years back, I was asked by Rebeca Henderson to give a lecture to one of her classes at Harvard Business School. Many of her students were convinced that, in order to do work that was interesting and innovative, one had to join a small start-up company; it was not possible to do breakthrough, innovative work in a large corporation.

My experience ran contrary to their beliefs. There are in fact many advantages to working in a large corporation, in particular, access to vast reserves of resource and capital. The trick was learning how to navigate the corporate immune system and how to tap into those resources. Over the years, I had learned how to do that pretty effectively. So, I spent a class session sharing my experiences and what I had learned, and answering questions.

As we launched into the question and answer portion of our session, I was impressed with depth of insight embodied in the questions and I thoughtfully answered them. Then at one point as a young man asked what I considered to be a remarkably reasoned and thoughtful question, it occurred to me, "Wow, that was really good. He must have a much better answer to his own question than I could ever come up with."

So, instead of answering, I said, "Wow, that was a really great question. How would you answer it?"

After a momentary deer-in-the-headlights expression passed over his face, he said, "What do you mean?"

I responded, "Well, your question is quite insightful and it occurs to me that you've probably thought about this a bit. I imagine that your own answer would be much better than anything I could come up with. How would you answer your own question?"

After a few moments and glancing over to professor Henderson to see if it was okay, he presented a wonderfully reasoned and thoughtful answer, indeed much better than what I had been thinking.

We All Have Answers
As my friend Scott and I drove to Cambridge on Saturday, we talked about everything from music theory to getting nervous before a performance to relationships and taking things personally. Scott's an amazingly talented fellow who's smart, creative and quick. And yet, Scott's own perception of the depth of his skill and talent is at the tip-of-iceberg level. As we talked, Scott asked me questions and I was suddenly reminded of my experience at with the students at Harvard Business School. I started asking Scott what he thought and how he would answer.

Scott too had some great answers, and yet, they were compromised by his doubts regarding his skills and capacity to answer. As we played around with some of Scott's questions and doubts, it occurred to me that, no matter how much we know about something, no matter how much we doubt ourselves, no matter how often we say, "I don't know!", we all have answers to every single question we ever ask. Each question asked has a default answer. The default answer varies from person to person and from time to time. It may be dead on; it may be so far afield that it's impossible for others to connect it with the question. But nonetheless, by the time we've formed the question, there's an answer in there somewhere.

I believe that we can learn more about the topic we're discussing, more about ourselves and more about thinking in general by exploring our default answers than we can ever learn by having answers provided to us. Simply by expressing our own answers out loud and hearing them pass through air and back round through our ears, we learn something. The very hearing of our answers often inspires change and new answers. Asking, "Why did I answer that way versus this way?", tells us a lot about who we are and how we think. Working through the question until we have a satisfactory answer (one that's thoughtful and well reasoned even if completely erroneous) builds our capacity to think and reason.

And yet, most of us only rarely express our default answers; instead we ask someone else. Correspondingly, when asked a question, most of us don't stop and say, "How would you answer your own question?" Sometimes we simply don't have time. Sometimes we answer because we really enjoy explaining what we know. Sometimes we simply assume that the asker has no clue.

Ask the Asker
It occurs to me that each of us encounters opportunities daily to ask the asker how she would answer her own question. Now, the best time to do this likely not when someone pulls over to ask directions from here to there or a client calls in to ask for the status of his order. However, a kid's "Why?" question offers the perfect opportunity to ask the asker. So does training a new employee on how your systems and processes work. And of course, when teaching pretty much anything from math and science to music and art, you have the perfect time to ask the asker.

So, when was the last time you asked the asker? How would it change his experience? How would it change yours?

Just asking.
Teflon

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