KNOWING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS TO ASK: CONNECTING THE DOTS

I recently finished reading a fascinating book by Gillian Tett entitled The Silo Effect; The Peril Of Expertise And The Promise Of Breaking Down Barriers.  Ms. Tett is a social anthropologist by training, an award-winning journalist and a senior editor for the Financial Times.

Readers who have worked for reasonably large organizations will instantly be familiar with the reality Ms. Tett describes:  numerous competing sub-organizations (in her phrase silos) going their own way, jealousy grading their turf, hoarding their information and data and competing with each other for supremacy and resources.  Her various examples illustrate both the positive contributions and the negative effects of silos, span the private and public sector, and include both industrial giants and several pillars of the global financial world.

But as I do not intend a book review here, allow me to spend a few words focused specifically on an important lesson Ms. Tett’s analysis provides for all managers.  Specifically, the limits of our individual wisdom, scope of understanding of events swirling around us and our frequent inability to ask the correct questions of the correct people to allow us to differentiate the forest from the trees.

Anthropology, writes Tett,  demonstrates how we humans tend to organize and classify our worlds into various mental, social and organizational compartments (see Chapter 1). These compartmentalized frameworks provide a degree of comfort, predictability and a ready-made set of behavioral cues and answers to a vast variety of questions and situations.

But these bounded compartments also blind us at times to the bigger picture and to the reality that there are many ways to look at the same thing.  They also make it difficult, to use Ms. Tett’s optic, for us to look occasionally at our “inside world” as if we were “outsiders” looking in (see Chapter 1).

Ms. Tett’s case studies repeatedly illustrates how very smart and accomplished managers and experts simply either asked the wrong questions of their colleagues, asked the right questions but of the wrong colleagues, or simply didn’t know exactly who to ask to gather the critical information they required.  Some managers and specialists failed to escape the limitations of their own mental maps, while others remained ignorant of what was happening in their organizations because collaboration, transparency and information sharing were in short supply.

So how do you gather the information you need to connect the dots that allow you to see the big picture especially when you most need to do so? Ms. Tett’s book provides a good number of suggestions and is well worth your read.  Based on my experience, I suggest the following are also some wise steps to consider.

Begin by recognizing your own limitations. Allow your personal mental maps to be challenged.  We all need to be skeptical of the continuing veracity of our mental constructs over time and of our assumed mental prowess.

Insist on collaboration, transparency, and free access to information in your organization.  Make openness your default response to communication except in exceptional circumstances. Insist on teamwork and communication sharing in your organization when different experts are all working on roughly the same thing.

Ask the same questions of many people in your organization.  Then explore the gap spaces between their answers searching for facts.

Foster a “questioning culture” within your organization.  Challenge everyone to escape their comfort zones by constantly questioning and challenging their basic assumptions and those of others as well.

Always assume there are important things you should but do not know.  Then ponder ways to get at these do not but should knows.

Every organization has its share of free thinkers, out of the box thinkers, people who look at things in odd ways and some who can imagine things that are not yet a reality.  Identify some of them and engage their minds from time to time.  Remember the best ideas and insights can come from anywhere and often when you least expect them. But you must be open to them.

When someone in your organization warns you about something that others around you dismiss or which does not seem likely to you, do not dismiss it yourself.  Make the dismisses’ demonstrate factually that the warning is wrong.

Just because you are not expert in everything, do not assume a basic understanding of an important part of your organizations expertise is beyond you.  Make experts translate their concepts and jargon into plain language that any layman can grasp.  If they can not, suspect trouble.

Finally, insist on data not opinions as the basis of your decisions. I have long marveled at the ability of some really smart people to present their opinions as if it were scientific fact.  The best managers dig for facts beneath the surface of all points of view, are keen on measurements that verify the positive effects of their decisions, and are instantly skeptical when one of their important questions elicits a response something like this: “no worries boss, everything is fine and under control”.

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