Questions with power

“Julie! It’s 10th grade algebra!”

We were sitting in an MBA classroom along with the rest of our section and Peter, our professor explaining how he had derived a particular economic formula. Julie was stuck and Peter had walked through the equation for the 3rd time when I burst out with my unsolicited comment.

Julie had the flash of understanding that had escaped her and I patted myself on the back for my clever intervention. Until the women in the class rebuked me for my clearly sexist and misogynistic attitude and insensitivity to Julie’s plight. The fact that Julie and I were friends, that I knew Julie majored in mathematics in college, and that I knew my comment was the fastest way to break her out of her confusion were all for naught.

For someone who claims to be a smart guy, I can be a slow learner.

The beauty of mathematics and technology is that not only are there right answers but that any question is appropriate at any time. Throw people and organizations–that is, people in groups–into the mix and simplicity is gone.

In technical settings, facts have no feelings and no question is ever out of bounds. In organizational settings, some of the objects you would like to treat as objective facts are other people with their own feelings and agendas. Questions don’t simply elicit data, they provoke reactions. Learning to be human includes many lessons on the limits of how and when you can pose questions.

For most of us, most of the time, it is enough to learn the boundaries and opt to stay within the lines. If you want to change organizations, however, you have to learn how to set up and sequence your questions to provoke the responses and the reactions you are seeking.

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