Friday, February 12, 2010

Why Do You Ask?

I get asked a lot of questions:
  • "Did you test feature X?"
  • "What if I set up this configuration, what kind of performance could I expect?"
  • "Can we do this test Y?"
  • "So we might need to qualify a widget in 3 weeks, can you do it?"
  • "How fast can we get X into the field?"
Questions like this are fine; they're part of my job. Of course, I do have to answer them! Here's where it can get a bit tricky.

In order to answer a question completely, you need to understand the questioner's intent.

You've heard what the person is asking, but you may not understand their entire agenda or their entire need. To give an answer that will hold up, first figure out why they are asking and what they really need to know.

For example:

If the question is "when can you qualify feature X?", the intent might be to see if a potential deal that requires that feature is viable. In this case, the real question to answer is "We have a deal worth $Y but only if we have feature X within Z weeks. Can we make that happen?" This can informs your answer. If you had just answered the original question, you probably would have mentally sized it, slotted it in after what you're currently promising to people, and come out with a date. Now that you know the intent, you can understand that a deal worth $X is large enough that this request should come before your other obligations. So you mentally size it, slot it in earlier because of the urgency, and give a different date. Knowing the reason behind the question changes your answer.

When you get asked a question, pause for just a second and ask yourself if you understand the intent behind the question. It can make the difference between a useful answer and an answer that doesn't help in the end.

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