Learning to ask better questions

In the Spring of 1979, I was wrapping up my first year in the MBA program. I had just agreed to serve as the President of the Computer Industry and Technology Club the following year. Clubs were a big part of the MBA experience and strategy for impressing prospective employers. My next task was to meet with the club’s faculty advisor and sponsor, Professor Jim Cash.

A fateful meeting.

Visicalc, the first spreadsheet program, wouldn’t hit the market until October of that year (far too late to help me with my Finance class). Computers in general were something that happened down in the engine room, not on the bridge. Information technology was low on the list of priorities of the aspiring CEOs who were my classmates.

Professor Cash was part of a small cadre of faculty working to change that thinking. I had spent the three years between university and business school working as a consultant and systems analyst. I thought information technology belonged pretty much everywhere in the organization. We bonded quickly.

During the course of my second year in the program, Jim tried to persuade me to go into the doctoral program. It took another five years before I finally agreed, which is another set of stories in its own right.

Central to Jim’s persuasion process was taking me behind the scenes of “the case method.” Every class session was organized around a written case study of a specific business situation. Should we invest in another Jumbo Sorter to speed up the processing of cranberries? What do we do about the supervisor on the plant floor who is harassing female workers on the line? How do we move more diners through our restaurant tonight? The case writeup might include some background on the company and the industry (or it might not). Perhaps there would be some exhibits with budget numbers or forecasts. No textbooks. No syllabus with clues about what the underlying topic might be.

The first days of learning by the case method can be profoundly disorienting. Today you can Google “how to crack a case”; in 1979 you sought advice from older students or compared notes with your colleagues. Regardless, it is fundamentally, and by design, learning by doing (see Learning from cases; getting smarter by design - McGee’s Musings for more if you’re interested).

Like most of my MBA colleagues, I came into the process thinking that business, and learning, was about answers. But you can never get the right answers if you’re asking the wrong questions. Perhaps more accurately, you can’t get good answers if you ask poor questions.

The challenge that Jim laid down for me was did I want to continue to improve my ability to pose better questions.




Struggling with being a cog

One of my earliest jobs was as an accounting clerk with McDonnell Aircraft Company (now part of Boeing). I’ve written about it before (You can’t win. Play anyway). This was the summer after my first year at university. I had elected to major in Statistics.

One morning my supervisor asked me to calculate the mean and standard deviation for a schedule of numbers he dropped on my desk. In 1972, this was a largely manual task that took me a modest chunk of my morning. I turned in the results and asked why he needed them.

His answer was “I didn’t need them but figured you’d like the opportunity to calculate some statistics.” I believe he was being sincere rather than hazing the new kid. I was less than thrilled with how I had spent my morning.

The standard advice in these kinds of situations and settings revolves around “paying your dues” and “fitting into the system.” This advice is based on a hidden assumption; that those paying the dues actually fit into the system. The industrial system was designed around components of fixed intelligence and constrained ambition.

I was not that kind of component.

Distinguishing Maps and Territories

It was September of 1971. I was on a bus leaving the Port Authority Station in Manhattan heading into New Jersey. My day had started in St. Louis. I was traveling with a friend from high school who claimed he knew what he was doing. Our destination was the campus of Princeton University.

In those days you didn’t visit multiple campuses before deciding where to go so I had no idea what to expect. Kevin’s plan was to fly into New York and take the train south to Princeton. I seem to remember that in addition to my suitcase, I had a new typewriter and a tennis racket. I don’t recall that I had ever actually played tennis so why I had a racket seems a bit suspect.

We flew to LaGuardia Airport and took a bus into Grand Central Station where we discovered that the trains from Grand Central went north. Southbound trains to New Jersey left from Penn Station. The ticket agent pointed towards a corridor and told us we could simply walk a few blocks underground to change stations. New York City was not a welcoming place to a couple of naive teens from the Midwest. We wandered through tunnels in the heat and humidity. Eventually, we somehow stumbled our way into the Port Authority Bus Station and bought a bus ticket to Princeton (it was several years later before I ever set foot in Penn Station).

The bus to Princeton travels through the Lincoln Tunnel, through the streets of Newark (a city I knew only as a place that had seen riots three years earlier in 1968), past oil refineries, and onto the New Jersey Turnpike. This naive child from the suburbs in the Midwest was on sensory and emotional overload. I was fingering the dime in my pocket and formulating the call to my mom to come rescue me.

Eventually we left the Turnpike and turned onto Route 206 which winds through the farmland that gives New Jersey its nickname, the Garden State. Route 206 turns into Nassau Street and the bus dropped me at the entrance to the Princeton Campus. The image above is Nassau Hall, my first impression of where I would spend the next four years. The dime stayed in my pocket.

“The map is not the territory” was a dictum offered by Alfred Korzybski, a Polish scientist/philosopher who developed the field of general semantics shortly before WWII. It’s a reminder that expectations and reality rarely coincide and you would be well-served to check how, where, and why they differ.

That day was a series of collisions between expectations and reality complicated by the confounding factor that I didn’t recognize how many unexamined expectations I was carrying in my head. Traveling that territory that day planted another seed in learning how to draw better maps and in recognizing that map-making was a tool I could use deliberately to make sense of the new territories I was trying to travel.

Clever trumps diligent

Efficiency and effectiveness aren’t terms you stumble upon in your typical youth. You have to look for the ideas before you’ve learned the words.

I must have been about 15 or 16 early in my high school career. For reasons that I have no memory of, I signed up (or was signed up) for an after school activity called Junior Achievement. The premise is to learn how business works by starting a small company with a group of other students. You choose a product, make it, and sell it. A gentle introduction to capitalism.

As I said, I may have been pushed into this more than choosing it for myself although that runs very contrary to the way my parents worked.

How I got there isn’t really the point.

I did it for two years.

In the second year I was somehow in charge of our little company despite being younger than most of the other participants. Our product was jumper cables to sell to car owners to restart dead batteries. We had to obtain the raw materials and parts, cut cable to size, assemble and package the cable sets, and sell them to prospective customers.

The salient memory for me is how we managed to sell our products. The implicit premise of this whole endeavor was to imitate all of the functions of a typical small business. In the mythology of American small business that included selling door-to-door. An activity meant to build character and grit I’m sure. Also an activity that terrorized an introverted young teen boy.

I have no memory of whose idea it was. Unlikely that it was mine. Doesn’t matter. We chose to approach local fire and police departments and sold to them in bulk to equip their fleets. For a little bit more effort we got a lot more result. We ended up at or near the top of all the other companies in the program that year.

The lessons baked into the Junior Achievement program were meant to be about the value of hard work, cooperation, and diligence. All good lessons. But the seed planted was the value of thinking problems through before charging ahead.

We encourage diligence. It’s easy to see and evaluate and promote.

But the real payoff goes to clever.

Dethroning productivity: becoming more effective

There’s an itch I’ve been picking at for some time. Everyone wants me to be more productive. All I need to do is listen to their podcast, buy their book , install their software, or implement their system. I’ve spent too much time and energy chasing those promises with limited return.

Productivity metrics are appealing because they’re easy. Count the number of notes you’ve captured to your personal knowledge management system. Plot the number of words you wrote today. Reward the programmer who wrote the most lines of code last week.

Productivity matters if you’re turning out cars or cellphones. Not a great metric if you’re in a more creative line of work. Einstein wasn’t lauded for how many papers he wrote. Picasso wasn’t praised for being prolific.

We appreciate this distinction in clearly creative realms. We haven’t managed to transfer that appreciation to less obviously creative spaces. More importantly, we haven’t grappled with the reality that we now all operate in creative realms.

Peter Drucker made a step in this direction when he wrote The Effective Executive (see Effective executives are design thinkers for my review). Although Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker”, he didn’t extend his analysis of effectiveness to them. But we knowledge workers now drive the economy and we don’t have good ways to sort out how to manage ourselves appropriately.

I’d like to spend the next few weeks taking a deeper look at what it might mean to shift from thinking about efficiency to thinking about effectiveness. Can we think and talk about effectiveness in ways that can better shape how we go about doing our creative work?

Running the numbers on the journey to insight

I’m a product of the case method approach to an MBA. After two years of analyzing three cases a day, I then spent time as a case writer. One of the first questions you would always face was “have you run the numbers?”

Figuring out which numbers you should run and what the heck “running the numbers” was supposed to mean was all part of the learning process.

Vaclav Smil’s most recent book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going provides an excellent example of the power of this strategy. It also offers a flavor of the experience I encountered too often when I faced a professor without running the numbers first. Here’s Smil’s motivation for this book:

The gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast, but in a democratic society no contest of ideas and proposals can proceed in rational ways without all sides sharing at least a modicum of relevant information about the real world, rather than trotting out their biases and advancing claims disconnected from physical possibilities.

Smil lays out his case for the relevant information about the real world that we ought to share. He starts with energy and food. Hard to get much more fundamental than that. If you’ve got eight billion people on the planet, that’s going to call for a lot of food to produce and distribute. That production and distribution depends on energy and most of that energy comes from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels that won’t be easily displaced by renewable sources at the scale implied by a population of eight billion.

This is a theme that Smil continues to hammer on; that you have to look at systems and scale in sync. He drives that home in a series of chapters examining his candidates for the four material systems that underpin our current economic environment; steel, cement, plastics, and ammonia. Not exactly the “software is eating the world” message that we’ve become accustomed to.

Smil stops short of offering specific policy recommendations. His desire is to see policy debates grounded in a better understanding of the relevant underlying systems and their scale. He hints at options that he deems plausible;

Solutions, adjustments, and adaptations are available. Affluent countries could reduce their average per capita energy use by large margins and still retain a comfortable quality of life. Widespread diffusion of simple technical fixes ranging from mandated triple windows to designs of more durable vehicles would have significant cumulative effects. The halving of food waste and changing the composition of global meat consumption would reduce carbon emissions without degrading the quality of food supply. Remarkably, these measures are absent, or rank low, in typical recitals of coming low-carbon “revolutions” that rely on as-yet-unavailable mass-scale electricity storage or on the promise of unrealistically massive carbon capture and its permanent storage underground.

The reality is that any sufficiently effective steps will be decidedly non-magical, gradual, and costly.

This is a book that should be widely read. What it needs is a companion volume that delves into the human systems side of how we might go about tying the politics of large scale system change with a grounded acceptance of the facts on the ground.


McGee’s Musings turns 21

I’m pretty sure that I would never have predicted that I would be writing this post from Portugal. Certainly not as an open-ended decision to relocate here.

When I started this experiment, I was beginning my time on the faculty at Kellogg. I did end up victim of the contingent faculty phenomenon and just recently wrapped up teaching at Loyola University in Chicago. It was a good gig, but the adjunct faculty game mostly suffers from all the problems that others have documented. The only saving grace for me is that this occurred at the tail end of my professional career and I was less affected by the downsides of adjunct work.

I expect to continue posting some of what I read and think about here. I am giving serious thought to shifting from a basic blog structure to more of a digital garden. We’ll see how that thought grows and evolves from a passing thought into an intention and, I hope, changes that become visible to the broader world.

Becoming a More Reflective Practitioner

It’s been nearly six months since I last posted here. That post was a look at dealing with baggage in the context of knowledge work. So I think the following image is fitting to account for the gap.

multiple bags of luggage in airport arrival area
Arriving at Lisbon Airport

That’s me in the Lisbon airport on September 1st with fourteen bags of most of our worldly possessions. A few hours later, Charlotte and I would begin unpacking them in Nazaré, Portugal, our new home for the next chapter in our story.

While the move has been in the works since the early days of Covid, most of the execution has been packed into these last six months. We sold the house, sold the car, rented an apartment, bought a car, closed accounts, opened accounts, said goodbye to friends, started making new friends, and started learning Portuguese (a constant reminder of my general lack of decent study habits and a likely source of future blog posts about learning challenges in my dotage).

The closing graf in that earlier post was

If your value depends on making sense out of the collision between the present situation and what has come before you have to manage your understanding of both.

There’s an intuition there that I am still trying to unpack.

Donald Schön’s notion of reflective practice is central to understanding knowledge work. Experience is the raw material that fuels practice. Your practice improves as you process experience and make adaptations and changes. Schön’s argument was that the more intentionally and mindfully you process and make sense of experience, the better your practice gets.

There’s a scale problem here. Maybe more than one.

The first is the basic problem of information overload that faces all knowledge workers. The second scale problem is that more of us are knowledge workers. We’ll table that problem for another day.

Richard Saul Wurman wrote about information overload in the late 1980s in Information Anxiety as did Vannevar Bush in 1945 in “As We May Think”. Moreover, it’s an exponential growth problem that has nearly always exceeded the capacity of available coping strategies (willful ignorance doesn’t count as a coping strategy no matter how often it is chosen).

The spate of new PKM tools are the latest attempt to address this scale problem. It’s encouraging to see some recommended strategies for deploying the tools. What I would like to see is even more case studies of how we are all learning to leverage available tools.

I was about to add that I’ve made a mental note to work on case studies of my own practice. But, in point of fact, I’ve just finished capturing that “mental” note as an actual note. Stay tuned.

One aspect of the information overload problem I want to investigate is the metaphor of the blank sheet of paper. Sometimes it’s explicit. More often it’s hidden in the assumptions of new tools and new practices. Everyone wants to pretend that you start clean because it simplifies their problem. Dealing with whatever mess of prior systems and practices you’ve cobbled together over the years is your problem.

Which it is.

But it really helps to be aware that it is your problem and that it exists. Taking some time to see what is already on your sheet of paper is the first step to becoming a more effective reflective practitioner.

Choosing to Learn New Tricks

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

This cliche has been on my mind lately, particularly as an old dog myself. How much of learning new tricks as an old dog starts with figuring out how to deal with history; with the cumulative baggage of what has come before?

This is in the context of the new wave of attention to personal knowledge management. It’s also in the context of an email I got this week from a consultant at Gartner Group reminding me of a column I wrote in 2005 on Why You Need a Personal Knowledge-Management Strategy

Time was when most of the value/baggage in history was “encoded” in your experience. Grey hair was a marker that you knew things and your cumulative experience expressed itself as informed judgment. Even if you had the files it wasn’t worth trying to mine them for value.

Today we have the opposite problem. All the history is there hanging like a weight over your head. You now need a strategy and practices for leveraging that history without letting it paralyze you. This is the dilemma of building a second brain marketing promises. It’s the digital equivalent of the professor’s office buried in stacks of paper and yards of shelves.

But most of us aren’t professors and haven’t been at this long enough. We haven’t accumulated enough digital stuff to trip over the looming problem. In analog days, only the most compulsive types were troubled by the steady accumulation of material. In a digital world, you have to actively fight the accumulation. Declarations of email bankruptcy make for good copy but miss the point. Warnings to beware of the collector’s fallacy also miss the point.

If your value depends on making sense out of the collision between the present situation and what has come before you have to manage your understanding of both.

Scope the Problem First

Some of my colleagues have objected to my disparaging connecting the dots thinking. They think I’ve caricatured the strategy to make my point. They’re probably right.

What I am really criticizing is a particular form of laziness. The kind of laziness that always wants to cut to the chase, to skip to the last chapter where we discover who the killer was, that just wants the answer.

We all want to skip over the boring parts. We get in trouble when the important insights are hiding in the boring parts.

There’s the classic joke about the hikers who encounter a bear in the woods. One stops to put on running shoes. The second hiker scoffs that “you can’t outrun a bear”. The first hiker answers “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”

There are rarely simple solutions to complex problems. Few would argue that point. What’s harder to address is the pressure to ignore the complexity in a problem when there’s a tempting simple solution at hand. How much of the sales copy and sales pressure that we encounter consists of efforts to label the problem at hand as one that matches the solution being offered?

Curiously, this tendency cuts both ways. My initial conversations with prospective clients often begin with the client telling me what the answer is. “We need a mobile app”, “we need to move to the cloud”, “we need a CRM system”. The specific answers evolve over time, but the pattern persists.

“What problem are you trying to solve?” is the starting point I strive to move the conversation to. Some cynics will interpret it as an attempt to extract more fees from a simple situation. But, it’s essential if you want to get an answer that ties to the right questions.