Thursday, November 18, 2010

'How' to Ask the right question...

Problems that we face are of two types. The simple problems, where we are provided the problem statement (remember maths at school?) and asked to find the solution, is at one end of the spectrum. Solving these problems involve knowing the relevant concepts and theories. However complex may the problem be, if we are aware of the concepts – we usually end up solving it – irrespective of the time spent.

Then there is the complex one. Here we first need to understand and define the problem to be solved. A wrong definition of the problem statement may very much mean that we don’t solve the real issue, even if we solve it as per the definition. Fundamental problems in science, most of all of the research issues and the project managerial issues that we face belong to this category.  And in real life scenarios, if we can articulate the right problem statement, it is more than half the problem solved.

How to ask the right questions at the right time to understand and articulate the correct problem statement – can we answer this question and put the finding into practice?
To ask the right questions, we need to be aware of the 6 key words.
These are nothing new and is known to everyone. To borrow from Kipling, we will use the 6 honest working men.

"I keep six honest working men, they taught me all I know, their names are WHAT, WHY and WHEN, and HOW and WHERE and WHO" .- Rudyard Kipling
To ask the right question, we need to use one of the six honest working men ( hwm) or a combination.But before that, we need to be aware that each of the six hwm have their specific meaning and purpose. These can’t be interchangeably used.

For example, take the subject of this article. It says ‘How to ask the right question?’. It doesn’t say ‘why to ask the right question’ or ‘where to ask the right question’. Why did we use ‘How’ instead of ‘Why’ or ‘Where’? What would have happened if the subject were ‘why to ask the right question?’. You would have thought that the whole article is a philosophical and it enquires into the purpose behind asking the right question. If we had used 'where', you the reader would have just given the article a cursory glance and skipped it as the query ‘ where to ask the right question’ doesn’t make much sense most of the time.

The above is just to stress that each of the words have their own meaning and using one in place of another will divert the purpose of the question in some other direction.

The following is what each of the words mean. 
  • WHO and WHAT Questions : These are used to get responses that relate to things, people and roles
  • HOW much or HOW many questions ; These are used when we want to measure or count the progress ( of what interests us).
  • WHEN questions: These are related to scheduling or timing (an event or activity).
  • WHERE questions: These are used when we want to get information plan/progress/location.
  • HOW questions: These are related to how things influence/impact one another.
  • WHY questions: These are related to understanding what is happening.
Let us see examples of each of the above question types.
Examples for ‘Who and What’ type of questions.
What is going on around me, and where do I fit in?
Who is in charge of this task and who else is involved?

Examples for ‘How much’ questions.
How much effort does this task need for completion ?
How many resources are needed if we need to complete the task in 5 days?
How are we placed to win this proposal?

Examples for ‘When’ questions.
When will we complete the present set of tasks?
When is this task expected to be complete?

Examples of ‘Where’ questions.
Where are we going now? Are we headed in the right direction?
Where is the project headed?

Examples of ‘How’ questions.
How do we get the project back on track?
How confident are we that the plan will work?

Examples of ‘Why’ questions.
Why are we doing things in this manner?
Why are we following this process? Why not some other process?
Why is he falling behind his planned schedule?

Coming back to where we started, 'How' to ask the right question - that would be a nice thing to know/to be able to do - irrespective of the domain/environment in which we operate. Knowing what the 6 hwm mean and where to use them will definitely help us a lot .

But this alone is not enough. This in combination with knowledge of the domain and environment in which operate, along with the ability to abstract to the core of what we are looking for - play a key role in asking the right question(s).  Once we are aware of this, it is all a matter of practice ;-)

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