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.