Asking better questions

Alan Kay has been one of my heroes for a long time. Feel free to Google him if the name doesn’t trigger anything for you. One of my favorite Alan stories comes from his early days at Xerox PARC. Xerox PARC comes from the days when smart organizations carefully walled off the crazies from the rest of the organization in search of new ideas.

Xerox PARC was situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, a continent away from Xerox headquarters in Connecticut. A team of executives was on site to review the work going on in Palo Alto. Alan and his team of software engineers walked through one of the research projects underway. Alan carefully explained that this was ongoing research; experiments were as likely to fail as to succeed and the goal was to learn something interesting that might lead to the next experiment.

The suit from Stamford nodded along in approval. His closing remark was “I understand, but you’re only running the experiments that succeed, right?” In his universe, “failure is not an option” was not a motivational challenge, it was a risk to be avoided at any cost.

If you commit to the path of asking questions, you also commit to the reality that you often won’t get answers. You’ll certainly get answers you don’t want.

The false promise of efficiency is that you can guarantee control. You carefully limit the questions and the answers to obtain that control. And, that can work for a time. If nothing important changes.

Reorienting from efficiency to effectiveness is, at heart, accepting that important change always happens. There are no guaranteed answers but you have to keep asking the questions anyway. Your only salvation is developing deeper skill at asking more effective questions.