Know the Question – Remember Your “Why”

Sam Leung • March 30, 2021

“You have to start with the end in mind. Not that you know the answer, but that you know the question.” – Jackie Barbieri

One of the key ingredients to a successful project is communication. Good communication means that you convey information to others in a simple, unambiguous way. You provide it in a medium that works best–e.g., visual, written, and so forth. Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, assumptions get in the way.

Sometimes these assumptions can be small. For example, you use a word with a specific definition in mind and assume that the receiver is using the exact same definition. In research and academic studies, scholars provide entire sections devoted to listing all of their assumptions and their reasoning behind those assumptions. In the real world, it’s a bit more complicated.

A client may tell you, “I want to figure out how to ____.” To the client, the question is obvious; in order to figure out x, we should look at y. To you, the question may also be obvious; in order to figure out x, we should look at z. And thus, the miscommunication begins.

Active listening can help. If we pay thoughtful attention to what the other person is saying and respond in a way that improves our mutual understanding, we have a better chance of understanding the need. Active listening means being curious. It allows us to figure out our client’s “why” and better formulate a process that will help them answer their questions and meet their goals.

And sometimes, the client isn’t always sure about the right way to frame the question.

Einstein famously said that if he had 60 minutes to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes developing the solution. Ensuring the formulation of a good research question at the beginning allows the data we discover to guide the research we do. It helps us narrow the scope of the study, define the uncertainties in our work, and design a process that allows us to investigate the data deliberately.

Designing a process with the end in mind–knowing the question–will help us all to be more successful. Doing so allows us to optimize further. It prevents “solutionitis” where we jump to the solution too soon and miss an opportunity. In this way, we don’t only make sense of the data–we supercharge sensemaking in a way that allows our clients to achieve the impact they seek.

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