Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Five Little Words

Over the past couple of days, I been firsthand witness to one of the most criminally-negligent aspects of our systems of formal education. I've watched PhDs scratch their heads for days on end trying to understand why the results they saw were not those expected. I've listened to experts drone on and on about tasks that are impossible, tasks that are accomplished daily be others lacking their expertise. I've heard tales of analysts huddled together over a computer monitor, searching for hours at a time, looking for the error in a massive spreadsheet only to be rescued by a young clerk who after five minutes isolated the problem. I've listened to parents of children with developmental difficulties glide past behavioral clues that shouted, "The answer's right here!" as they described their frustration with a prescribed protocol that "wasn't working!"

The educational negligence? Never having ingrained the following six words in to the minds of our students:What does that tell you? Five little words, that, if asked and answered at the appropriate time, transform the impossible into the simple, the never into the immediate, the formidable into the laughable: five little words rarely articulated.

Of course, there are different ways to phrase What does that tell you?, e.g., why does he do that?

Why Does He Do That?
I sit at dinner with some business colleagues whom I just met. As the evening progresses, the conversational flotilla splits off into pairwise discussions; we drift beyond the safe harbors of technology topics into things personal. Joe, the man who's sat next to me all evening tells me about his son with autism. As he describes their situation, I am moved by the love he expresses in each depiction and I'm compelled by the change in Joe's demeanor.

At six-foot-four and 240 pounds, Joe could be a pro-football player or navy seal. All evening he's exhibited nothing but strength and confidence. As he talks about his son, I see love and compassion. I also see fear, uncertainty and doubt. Joe expresses frustration as he describes the activities his some pursues in order to regulate his sensory system. When Joe describes his son flapping his hands, I ask, "Where does he flap his hands?"

Joe looks at me as if being awakened from a trance and asks, "What do you mean?"

I say, "Well if he's flapping them in front of his eyes, that would tell us one thing. If he's flapping them next to his ears, that would tell us something else. The question you want to ask yourself is, 'Why is he flapping his hands?'"

We sit silently. Joe stares in my direction, but I sense that his mind is far away, retrieving images of his son flapping his hands. A few moments later, Joe says, "Well, I'd say he always flaps his hands near ears. In fact, I can't recall him ever doing it in front of his eyes or even where he could see his hands."

We talk about sensory stimulation and regulation, and how useful it is to understand which systems a child stimulates in order to feel more comfortable. Joe calls up other atypical behaviors, I ask him, "What does that tell us?", Joe answers. Within minutes we've found a common thread and Joe once again looks like the navy seal who has no fear.

What About This Cell?
The salesroom floor buzzes with activity. The new ad campaign with the limited time offer has hit the streets and the phones are ringing non-stop. The spreadsheet that the sales manager uses to track activity and followup calls displays: ERROR in 90% of the cells. A crowd of IT people stoop over his desk trying to find the bug. Every fifteen minutes or so, a new one takes the seat declaring that he's got the solution only to be replaced fifteen minutes later by another.

The sales manager calls together his team and instructs them to use paper and pencil to track activity until the IT people fix the system. The business rolls on, but there will be hours of catch-up work when the shift is done.

Two hours pass. Nothing much has changed with the IT guys except increased volume, perspiration and reddened skin.

The sales manager leans over the cubicle of one of his younger clerks. He asks, "Hey, you know something about Excel right? Could you take a look at the spreadsheet and see if you can tell what's wrong?"

The clerk shrugs, opens a shared folder and pulls down a copy of the spreadsheet that was backed-up at the beginning of the day. He flips from worksheet to worksheet getting the lay of the land and notices an obscure cell that has an error message. The cell seems unrelated to everything else, but he thinks, "Might as well start with the stuff I know is broken."

His assertion is a direct application of the five little words, a shortcut. He sees that someone has inadvertently entered a letter into what appears to be a number cell. He doesn't know what number should be in the cell, but he's pretty confident that it should be a number and not a letter. He types the number 10 and then flips back to the first worksheet, the one that the IT guys have lingered over. The ERRORS have disappeared.

He walks to his bosses cubicle and announces, "I'm not sure what the right answer is, but I know where the problem is."

The IT guys ignore him, but his boss asks the current occupant of his seat to stand and invites his clerk to sit. Without a word, the clerk flips to the obscure worksheet, changes the value in the cell to 10 and flips back to the first sheet. The errors are gone. He turns around and says, "You guys probably know what the number should be. I'm just pretty sure that it should be a number and not a letter."

As he stands, his boss pats him on the back and breathes his thanks. As he walks back to his desk, he hears one of the IT guys beginning to explain how "that couldn't have been the problem."

Five Little Words
Sometimes, if you pay attention, you'll find the clues that lead to solutions to life's biggest challenges hiding in plain sight. The method that transforms these background props into key plot elements is simple; ask yourself, "What does that tell me?"

Happy Wednesday,


  1. I like it. Often there's a judgment or assumption operative in our approach to a question or situation that short-circuits thinking and having a hip-pocket question that pulls you back to an attitude of unbiased curiosity or even wonder is really useful. It's like the innocent "Why?" that breaks open a dialogue when the explorer suddenly realizes what s/he thought were "givens" in the situation are actually assumptions or judgments that have been adopted and can be discarded. So simple, so powerful.

  2. So simple, so powerful, so often overlooked.


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