Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

I have not read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I know there is a point where a character asks what’s the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and receives a response of 42. The answer was certainly not what anyone was expecting, but it was an answer. Much of science is like the answer 42. We ask grand questions of nature and receive answers we didn’t quite expect and can’t always make sense of.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “Nature is like a genie that answers exactly the question we pose, not necessarily the one we intend to ask.” We learn by making observations about the world. We can make predictions about what we think will happen given certain conditions and we can develop and test hypotheses, but the answers we get may not be answers to the questions we intended to ask. I frequently listen to the Don’t Panic Geocast and the hosts often talk about scientific studies that go awry because of some unexpected interaction between lights, between an experimental set-up and the sun, or because an animal happened to have messed with equipment in the field. Real results are generated, but they don’t always mean what we think they do on first look. The hosts have a frequent line that, “any instrument can be a thermometer,” to note how subtle changes in temperature can cause misleading noise in the data.
Pearl’s quote is meant to demonstrate how challenging science can be and why so much of science has taken such a long time to develop. Humans have often thought they were receiving answers to the questions they were asking, only to find out that nature was answering a different question, not the one the scientists thought they had asked. Pearl states that randomness has been one of the ways that we have gotten past nature, but writes about how counter-intuitive randomized controlled trials were when first developed. No one realized that the right question had to be asked through experimental set-ups that involved randomness. On the benefits of randomness he writes, “first, it eliminates confounder bias (it asks Nature the right question). Second, it enables the researcher to quantify his uncertainty.”
In the book, Pearl takes observations and statistical methods combined with causal insights to a level that is honestly beyond my comprehension. What is important to note, however, is that nature is not obligated to answer the questions we intend to ask. It answers questions exactly as we pose them, influenced by seemingly irrelevant factors in our experimental design. The first answer we get may not be very reliable, but randomness and statistical methods, combined as Pearl would advocate, with a solid understanding of causality, can helps us better pose our questions to nature, to be more confident that the responses we get answer the questions we meant to ask.
Quick Heuristics

Quick Heuristics

I really like the idea of heuristics. I have always thought of heuristics as short-cuts for problem solving or rules of thumb to apply to given situations to ease cognitive demand. We live in an incredibly complex world and the nature of reality cannot be deduced just by observing the world around us. For the world to get to the point where I can drink an espresso while listing to music streamed across the internet as I write a blog post, humanity collectively had to make discoveries involving microscopes, electromagnetism, and electricity, none of which were easily observable or intuitively understandable to our human ancestors.

 

To cope with a complex world and a limited ability to explore and understand that world, humans thrived through the use of heuristics. When faced with difficult problems and decisions, we substitute approximate but not exact answers. We can make a category judgement and reduce the number of decisions we have to make, taking a generalized path that will usually turn out well. Heuristics help us cope with the overwhelming complexity of the world, but they are not perfect, and they simplify the world according to the information we can observe and readily take in.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “the heuristic answer is not necessarily simpler or more frugal than the original question – it is only more accessible, computed more quickly and easily. The heuristic answers are not random, and they are often approximately correct. And sometimes they are quite wrong.”

 

Heuristics are quick, which is important if you are foraging and hear a dangerous sound, if you need to pick a quick place for shelter as a storm approaches, or if you have to make quick decisions about how to behave in a small tribal group. The more fluidly and quicker a heuristic comes to mind, the more natural it will feel and the stronger people will grasp it, even if it is not true. Stories and myths contain relatable elements and extend common experiences to complex problems like how to govern an empire, understanding why storms occur, and guiding us as to how we should organize an economy. Heuristics give us short-cuts to understanding these complexities, but they are biased toward our accessible world and experiences, which means they only approximate reality, and cannot fully and accurately answer our questions. While they can get some concepts more or less correct and give us good approaches to life in general, they can also be very wrong with serious consequences for many people over many generations.
Answering the Easy Question

Answering the Easy Question

One of my favorite pieces from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, was the research Kahneman presented on mental substitution. Our brains work very quickly, and we don’t always recognize the times when our thinking has moved in a direction we didn’t intend. Our thinking seems to flow logically and naturally from one thought to the next, and we don’t notice the times when our brains make logical errors or jumps that are less than rational. Mental substitution is a great example of this, and one that I know my brain does, but that I often have trouble seeing even when I know to look for it.

 

Kahneman writes, “When the question is difficult and a skilled solution is not available, intuition still has a shot: an answer may come to mind quickly – but it is not an answer to the original question.” 

 

The example that Kahneman uses is of a business executive making a decision on whether to invest in Ford. To make a smart decision, the executive has to know what trends in the auto industry look like and whether Ford is well positioned to adapt to changing economic, climate, and consumer realities. They need to know what Ford’s competition is doing and think about how Ford has performed relative to other automobile companies and how the automotive sector has performed relative to other industries. The decision requires thinking about a lot of factors, and the executive’s time is limited, along with the amount of information they can hold in their head, especially given the other responsibilities at home and in the office that the executive has to worry about.

 

To simplify the decision, the executive might chose to answer a simpler question, as Kahneman explains, “Do I like Ford cars?” If the executive grew up driving a Ford truck, if they really liked the 1965 Mustang, or if the only car crash they were ever involved in was when a person driving a Ford rear-ended them, their decision might be influenced by an intuitive sense of Ford cars and people who drive Fords. Also, if the investor has personnaly met someone within the executive team, they may be swayed by whether or not they liked the person they met. Instead of asking a large question about Ford the company, they might substitute an easier question about a single Ford executive team member.

 

“This is the essence of intuitive heuristics,” writes Kahneman, “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” 

 

Often, we already have a certain feeling in mind, and we switch the question being asked so that we can answer in line with our intuition. I grew up driving a Ford, so I might be inclined to favor investing in Ford. I might answer the question of investing in Ford before I am even asked the question, and then, instead of objectively setting out to review a lot of information, I might just cherry pick the information that supports my original inclination. I’m substituting the question at hand, and might even provide myself with plenty of information to support my choice, but it is likely biased and misguided information.

 

It is important to recognize when these prejudices and biases are influencing our decisions. By being aware of how we feel when asked a question, we can think critically to ask if we are being honest with the question that was asked of us. Are we truly answering the right question, or have we substituted for a question that is easier for us to answer?

 

In the question of cars and investments, the cost might not truly be a big deal (at least if you have a well diversified portfolio in other respects), but if we are talking about public policy that could be influenced by racial prejudice or by how deserving we think another group of people is, then our biases could be very dangerous. If we think that a certain group of people is inherently greedy, lazy, or unintelligent, then we might substitute the question, “will this policy lead to the desired social outcome” with the question, “do I like the group that stands to benefit the most from this policy?” The results from answering the wrong question could be disastrous, and could harm our society for years.
Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions - The Importance of Asking Questions - Joe Abittan

Direct Requests Vs Suggestions Via Questions

A bit of advice offered by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People reads, “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the person whom you ask. People are more likely to accept an order if they have had a part in the decision that caused the order to be issued.”

 

Carnegie suggest that instead of directly ordering people to do something, we should instead ask them questions about how we (as a team) can go about achieving the thing we want. This advice seems like it needs to be tied to specific situations in order for it to be practical. There are certainly times where requests need to be direct and even forceful to make sure appropriate jobs and tasks are completed accurately and timely.

 

However, if we are working on a creative project with multiple routes to completion, asking process questions might be a good approach. We could micromanage the project and interject at every point to make sure decisions were made in the way we wanted, or we could stand back and ask people what they thought would be the best approach and ask others what the pros and cons of each approach to reaching our goal might be. This seems to be the context that Carnegie envisioned for his advice.

 

With children, educators often encourage asking questions rather than telling answers. Instead of telling kids why the sky is blue, the advice is to ask children why they think the sky is blue, what could lead to it being blue, whether the sky is always blue or if its hue changes. These questions stimulate the mind and expand the conversation. Kids on their own probably won’t come up with an explanation of why the sky is blue and we will have to explain Rayleigh scattering to them, but we can at least engage them more and help them work on critical thinking skills in ways that simply answering questions directly would not allow for.

 

When working in teams where we can give authority to others, we can encourage this same type of critical thinking and build such skills by asking questions rather than by micromanaging and giving directives. We can ask what others understand to be our main goals and ask others how they think their role within the project can support those larger. This gives others a chance to take ownership of their duties in ways that simply giving orders does not. Hopefully with them engaged and supportive of the final decisions they will grow and produce better outcomes on this and future projects.

Coaching is About Curiosity

One of the final paragraphs from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit  reads, “But the real secret sauce here is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity. Find your own questions, find your own voice. And above all, build your own coaching habit.”

 

The crux of Bungay Stanier’s thoughts on coaching is that being a good coach requires asking questions in a process of discovery as opposed to providing answers in the form of advice giving. Contrary to the typical American version of coaches or the sports movie version of coaches, an effective coach doesn’t just bark orders and doesn’t just automatically give everyone answers, advice, and life lessons. True coaches, in real life, help individuals find answers themselves.

 

When we think about coaches, we often imagine someone who has years of experience, who has been in every situation, and who can decipher exactly what needs to be done at any moment. This imagined coach, however, does not exist. No matter how long someone has been coaching and no matter how insightful they are, no one can truly understand the pressures, challenges, and specifics of the situations and needs of another person. By focusing on asking questions, the coach discovers what is happening and what the other person needs. The individual being coached gets more help from questions than advice because the questions drive them to think more deeply about themselves, other people, and the where they are at in life. Questions can shift their perspective, encourage deeper thought, and lead to discoveries that advice cannot produce.

 

For almost all of us, we do less listening than we do speaking. When another person is talking, we spend a lot of our free brain space trying to anticipate where the conversation is going so that we can have a perfect response. Knowing this about ourselves can help us understand why advice simply doesn’t land. The other person, while we are giving them advice, is thinking ahead of where our advice is going. Asking a question instead of giving advice gets the other person talking and thinking through what they are saying and describing. It allows them to put pieces together in a constructive form of discovery in a way that advice simply doesn’t.

 

Ultimately, by remembering that coaching is a form of discovery, we enter our coaching opportunities willing to be more flexible, and willing to be more responsive to the needs of the person we are coaching. Rather than walking into the coaching opportunity feeling pressured to have brilliant insights and to give the other person some magnificent piece of advice, we can enter the opportunity knowing that we can both co-discover a solution that is not yet apparent. This takes a lot of pressure off of both the coach and the person being coached.

Curiosity and Asking Questions

I keep coming across people who encourage curiosity. The message is that if you want to do meaningful work, to end up in an interesting place, and to have an impact on the world, you should always be curious. Searching for answers, looking around to recognize what you don’t know, and constantly learning about more and more seems to be something that the most successful people do. Questions, the advice suggests, don’t lead to answers and ends, but rather to journeys and new pathways.

 

The idea of curiosity, questions, and learning as the path rather than the destination is echoed in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He quotes Sam Keen by writing, “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” Questions drive our actions as we search for new answers and lessons. Questions take us to new places, both physically and mentally, and broaden our understanding of the complexity of the world.

 

This quote is comforting to me as someone who enjoys esoteric knowledge and learning. My family members frequently roll their eyes when I start a sentence with, “So I was listening to a podcast…” I love learning new things and connecting dots that are not obvious and that I had not previously considered. I have seen this journey in myself lead to a greater appreciation for people who see and think differently from myself. I have ventured into areas I thought I understood, only to be shown the nuances of decision-making and the challenges of truly understanding an area. Diving into topics that we all experience but don’t all know the background of has revealed biases and forces at work that are virtually imperceptible. Living a journey fueled by curiosity feels incredibly valuable, and is something I wish people would seek out more than we seek to win arguments.

Getting Team Members to Take Action

I don’t find myself in a lot of direct coaching situations today, but nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for understanding coaching relationships and knowing how to be truly effective not just as a coach, but also as someone receiving coaching. One recommendation that Bungay Stanier has in his book is for coaches to ask more questions relative to the advice they give. As a person working on a small team and as a spouse, this is something I have always been challenged by. As an employee who knows that he doesn’t quite know everything (as much as I sometimes do feel that I do), recognizing that the questions people ask me are great chances for us both to develop greater understanding is important. For the person being coached, questions are always a little terrifying. Answers from above are easy, but questions mean you have to really know your stuff and be prepared to provide a meaningful response.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends that coaches use questions to get the other person thinking and to truly get to the most important issues for a given employee. From the outside we can look at someone’s problems and assume that we know what is going on for them, but we can never truly get inside their head. Asking more questions relative to giving advice is one way to better understand what someone is dealing with. One way to get more questions into your coaching conversation is to give the person you are working with a chance to answer both your questions and also their own questions before you chime in.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends the following approach as a coach when someone asks you a question, “Say, ‘That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?'”

 

This strategy provides an insight into the thoughts and approaches of the other person. It reveals their general approach to a given situation and helps you understand where their thinking breaks down. The response gives you a chance to give examples and to focus on what the other person is actually looking at and thinking about, whereas giving advice without this question just shows what you think about a problem without understanding it from the point of view of who you are working with. You won’t be able to address the person’s questions if you don’t know how they are understanding and interpreting the situation they are in. Asking what their thoughts are and what their approach would be in a given situation reveals how you can be the most effective as a coach.

 

As an employee, I try to remember this and bring this into my own 1-on-1’s with my manger. I know that I can shed light into my thought process and outline what approaches to problems and situations seem reasonable to me. Rather than expecting an answer from my manager, I can better explain my challenges and how I have thought about approaching a situation to elicit better guidance. It is not easy on either side, as the coach or the team member, but it is necessary to actually drive improvement for both of us and our team.

More Developmental Conversations

Michael Bungay Stanier encourages coaches to strive toward having more meaningful discussions with people, especially when they are in designated coaching situations. In one-on-one meetings, in general workplace conversations, and when chatting with friends and family, leaders can make the most of their conversation by being aware of how they speak and by using techniques to help drive conversation in meaningful directions.
In his book, The Coaching Habit, Bungay Stanier shares some of the techniques he has learned and applied to have a bigger impact as a coaching. One of the keys to being a successful coach is keeping conversations focused on the person you are working with and focusing on their growth and development. Often times it is hard to keep a conversation from becoming a vent session, but if you are able to keep a conversation open and productive, you will help the other person grow in ways that venting cannot. As a strategy, Bungay Stanier writes, “The simple act of adding “for you” to the end of as many questions as possible is an everyday technique for making conversations more development than performance-oriented.”
I wrote about Bungay Stanier’s question, “what’s the real challenge here for you?” and in his book he expands on the final part of the question, “For you”. When coaching, adding this final bit to any question encourages the individual to reflect inward and think about themselves and their actions in a given situation as opposed to just the challenge itself and the other actors or obstacles they think are in their way. Getting people to look inward helps them find answers inside of themselves or to think through challenges in a new frame that opens up more opportunities than they were aware of. This is what separates venting from development and it is a key skill to help other people cultivate.
It is also important to remember “for you” and to ask questions that use “for you” because we don’t truly know what is going on in the other person’s head. We can make suggestions all day long and offer our advice, but if we are not helping the other person build self-awareness skills, then we are simply telling them something from our limited vantage point outside their life and their mind. It is far more helpful for a coach to work through  the challenges another person faces and to help the other person learn to open doors themselves.

Whats the Real Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem. When we go to meetings, chat with someone during a lunch break, or are working in a group on a project, it can become very easy to start complaining about whatever thing happens to be annoying us at that moment. Whatever issue we just had to deal with can be a bit overwhelming and can come to dominate our thoughts. However, the issue we just dealt with may not actually be the big thing at the heart of our problems. We might be annoyed by the way a particular form is being completed by another person or by a team’s inability to come together to finalize a draft of a new project, but the real challenge may be something deeper and more significant. If we don’t access that deeper level, then we are not actually doing anything that will help us or our organization improve when we complain at a surface level about some annoyance.

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier has a recommendation for us to get to this deeper level. Throughout his entire book he encourages us to be better listeners and to ask the right questions to get our conversations moving in the right direction. His advice to get to the big issue is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Whether we ask this to ourselves or to someone we are coaching, the result is a more deep consideration of the situation that is leading to frustration or bad outcomes. Bungay Stanier describes the question this way, “This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Bungay Stanier explains that we will always have multiple problems to deal with, but that not all problems are created equal. Some will be more pressing then others and some will stem from larger more structural problems. Asking what the real challenge is can help develop thoughts on the larger issues at the core. Adding the “for you” part of the question dials in on the specific details that are in the individual’s (or your own) control, as opposed to details that are too vague and general to be something we can address directly. It also helps the question be more personal and aim toward individual growth and opportunity.

The Coaching Habit helps us get beyond simple venting and complaining to have more constructive and thoughtful discussions. Learning to listen and understanding how questions can help shape the direction of our conversations is crucial for successful coaching and even for successful introspection. Understanding our real challenge and then helping others dial in on their real challenges can drive new growth and productivity.

Solving the Wrong Problem

I work for a growing but still small tech start-up in the healthcare space based out of the bay area. The company has a great mission and is amazing to work for, but we have certainly had a lot of growing pains and unanswerable questions over the last four years that I have worked for the company. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is making sure we answering the right questions and getting the right solutions to the right problems in place.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at these types of problems and takes them on in his book about coaching, The Coaching Habit. His book is full of recommendations to be a more effective coach and manager, and one of the benefits of his techniques is an improved understanding of the problems and questions that organizations must face. In the company I work for, things have always been in flux, and that means that sometimes it is hard to know what the real issue is and where we should be focusing all of our energy. If you polled the entire office about what the biggest problem is right now, you would get different answers from everyone. Bungay Stanier described the situation like this:

 

“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.”

 

Effective leaders don’t just jump in when a team is discussing the issues they are facing and they don’t just take on all the problems in an attempt to solve everything themselves. Good leaders try to drill deeper to understand what is really at the heart of the collective issues facing the team, and then work to empower the team to tackle the problems they face. In my next post I’ll describe the conversation that Bungay Stanier recommends to help us find the right problem to solve, but for now I’ll describe the question he uses to get to the heart of the issue, “What’s the challenge?”.

 

In my career I have solved a lot of problems and fixed a lot of issues, but often times I have spent a lot of energy on problems and issues that end up not being very important. Something might be a little bit off and something might be an inconvenience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to spend a lot of effort fixing that individual thing. Perhaps what everyone complains about is frustrating and annoying, but it may just be part of a larger problem or something that would go away altogether by solving a bigger picture item. This is definitely an area where growth is possible for me, and is something that all organizations struggle with, especially if we are quick to action and don’t make real efforts to dive further. Asking ourselves and our team, “What’s the real challenge?” and looking upstream from the stated problems to possible larger causes is one way to make sure the work we do matters and is one way to galvanize our team around the most important solutions.