The Gentile Art of Asking Questions

While it’s useful to discuss the ideals of how a pond, or business, should function, and it’s useful to discuss what to do to prevent problems, the reality is that there is always something wrong, just not always something noticeable, and not always extreme enough to be of eminent concern. The world isn’t perfect, nor is a pond 100% ideal, nor a business or origination without at least some issues.

As such, it’s useful to be able to identify what issues exist. Once these are identified, they can be ranked by importance or impact, and then mitigated as time and resources make it possible to move toward a more healthy pond, or a more healthy business as the case may be.

So, once more, consider the pond. How would you approach determining where an issue might exist, how would you approach finding those things that are out of balance, causing minor issues, or that could be improved? Would you look into the pond? Would you test the pH? Would you test the mineral and chemical levels? Would you check the temperature? Would you taste the water? Would you smell it? Would you put an object in and observe if it moves, in what direction, and by how much? Would you run tests on the algae, the plants, the fish, the insects, the frogs? What would you do?

Asking Questions

As I started with questions, one approach is to start asking questions. Initially, these are questions you ask yourself. You don’t start with the broad question of, what is wrong with this pond, unless something obvious gives an answer. Or, more accurately, you don’t end with that question.

A bit less broad and more useful question is, where could there be a problem? We’ve talked previously of a few examples that can hurt a pond, so we can start with some of those.

How does the inlet look? Too much flow? Too little? Is the inlet clean? Is anything clogging the inlet? What is the makeup in terms of chemical and mineral, as well as biological, of the water coming in?

How does the outlet look? Too much flow? Too little? Is there anything about the water coming out that looks like it might indicate issues inside the pond? Is anything clogging the outlet?

How about the surface? Is there a lot of algae growing? How many plants float or rise out of it? Do you see any dead vegetation? Do you see any dead fish or other animals? Is the water clear? Cloudy? Is there any coloring to it?

There are a lot of questions you can ask. Not all questions are equal, though. Some questions will give helpful information, some won’t, and some will give misleading information. Obviously, to identify an issue, we need information, and good information. This means we have to ask good questions, the right questions, not just any questions.

But therein lies the problem, right? How do you ask the right questions if you don’t know what might be wrong, or might need improving? The phrase, “there are no bad questions,” and similar phrases. The implication is that it’s better to ask a question that you should know the answer to than to remain ignorant. While this is true in some situations, it will not assist you in a situation where you are looking for action to perform.

This means the approach required is not that of just asking questions, but reaching a point where you can ask the right one. This seems a very difficult task, but it isn’t as difficult as you might think.

The biggest aid it asking the right question is an understanding of the situation. The more you know about it, the better you can do at asking the right questions. In our pond, this means the more you study about how a pond ecosystem works, the more information you have to inform you on what questions to ask. Also, the better you know your pond, the better you can do. Educate yourself in the various aspects.

The second largest aid, I demonstrated above.

Dividing the Problem

You’ll note that I didn’t just ask questions about the pond, I asked questions about the inlet, the outlet, and the surface. This is of course not complete, but it demonstrates what I’m trying to show. If you take the pond as a whole and ask questions, you necessitate a high level view. While this can give you answers, it is less likely to than a closer inspection. By dividing the problem up, you can look more closely at one aspect, allowing you to tune your questions to a scope that is more likely to yield results.

We did this somewhat, but not from the questioning side, with our analysis of the oxygen content in the water. We looked at the symptoms on the surface, in the middle water, and at the bottom. Likewise, when discussing water flow, we looked at the water coming in and the water coming out, in relation to the size of the pond. This is the same approach, just instead of looking at what to prevent, now we’re looking at what can be done about the current state. Instead of pointing out what could be wrong, we begin asking questions about what it is like now, from which we can then ask the question, “what can I do about it?”

For our pond, we can divide it in a number of ways. I mentioned two already: surface, middle water, and bottom; and inlet, main pond, and outlet. We can also divide it by type, and have done so previously: water content, bacteria, algae, plant, animal.

This of course is a matter of asking questions itself. What ways can I divide a pond up to ease analysis and the development of the right questions? What way is best for the type of problem we want to identify? What order should we follow through the various ways of dividing it?

Dividing by depth helps us understand the dynamics within the pond. Different things live in each zone, and each zone affects each other.

Dividing by inlet, pond, and outlet helps us understand the flow of the pond, what is coming in, and what is going out, and what that does to the balance between.

Dividing by type allows us to look at what each type of thing in the pond contributes, and how that contribution affects the other types, and helps us learn how the food chain in the pond works and what changes how it works.

There are over ways to divide what we are looking at, in order to both focus our questions, and to determine a solution that is specific to the scope of the question.

Don’t Limit Your Vision

While observing and educating yourself helps, and while dividing the problem into sections helps, sometimes it’s necessary to look deeper. As with all things, the obvious isn’t always the whole story, and what appears to be can keep us from noticing what should be obvious.

There’s a simple truth that applies to many areas. People tend to see what they expect to see. If you let your expectations limit your vision, you might not be asking the right questions.

The limits our expectations put on our vision can take many forms, but ultimately it boils down to an understanding that our understanding is always limited. It takes effort to look past it, but isn’t necessarily difficult. It is a matter of asking, what is it I’m not seeing? What can’t I see from here? What things I’m seeing may be hiding something more important?

In our pond, this might include something on the surface, like focusing on the algae growth and not seeing plants below that might show us something. Or a fast moving surface of the inlet or outlet but most of the inlet or outlet being clogged below the surface, so only a small amount of water is flowing, despite what looks like good water flow from the surface.

Or it might be the water content. Different tests give information. There are many minerals and chemicals that can be found in the water that can have varied effects and if you aren’t testing for the right things, you might not find a problem that needs to be addressed. A whole battery of tests could miss it if you don’t know about or don’t think relevant the one test that matters.

Or you might see an increase of number of fish in the pond and take this to mean the pond is healthy and needing no change, not realizing the number of fish have increased because of increased food caused by another issue, or because the predators that previously ate the fish have died.

Going back to the three questions I proposed above for seeing what you are missing, let’s look at them directly.

What is it I’m not seeing?

This question is a matter of what you are looking for, a matter of observation and what you are overlooking. It takes practice to start noticing the things you overlook, no matter what the context.

The first step is to ask the above question. What is it I’m not seeing? When you’ve asked this question, wanting to know the answer, you are actively looking for things you might have missed and trying to identify what you might be missing.

Don’t stop with the question, though. Never stop with a question, always look for the answer, which will, as is the goal with this one, lead to more questions. Analyze both what is going on around you and what you are assuming about it. Keep looking until you find something you missed, even if it’s something small. With practice, it will grow easier, and the larger things will become obvious.

There will be something about the pond you are missing or not understanding. A healthy pond is dynamic, it changes. If you aren’t seeming something new, you are missing something. The nice thing about a pond is that it is dynamic, if it is relatively healthy, it will adapt to or heal from many small issues. This means you have time to develop your ability to see these things. And larger problems that aren’t noticeable aren’t usually an immediate danger, even though they can’t be ignored. With practice and patience, mostly patience with yourself, you will begin to see them and be able to act before they are of immediate danger. But to get to that point, you have to start asking yourself, what is it I’m not seeing?

What can’t I see from here?

Your viewpoint and vantage point makes a difference. With any problem, you see it from where you are standing. This is true both literally and metaphorically.

The pond looks different standing on one bank than the other, and different standing near the inlet, near the middle, or near the outlet. It looks different standing up or looking down at it than sitting or kneeling near the surface and looking across it. Your vantage point changes what you see and what you can see. You can only observe so much if you don’t move from where you’re standing, whether by walking around or by getting higher or lower. Walk around the pond, and check it out from different locations and different heights. Do you see anything you didn’t before you moved?

From a metaphorical viewpoint, the same is true. We look at the problem from where we stand, that standing point being our own experiences, knowledge, and beliefs. Metaphorically, this question and the first question are much the same, as where you stand is what determines what you see, and looking at it from a point of view outside your experiences, knowledge, and beliefs helps you to answer the first question.

With the pond, this is your assumptions both about the current state of the pond, and about what you know about ponds. Research will help you look from a different place, as will experimenting and analyzing, looking for where you are and where else you can look from.

Until you realize your field of vision is restricted by where you are standing, you cannot see the pond, or any problem or situation, from anywhere but where you are standing. The question, what can’t I see from here? implies the additional question, where else can I look from?

What things I’m seeing may be hiding something more important?

Obstacles obscure view. This is where the phrase, “can’t see the forest for the trees,” comes from. When you’re in among the trees, all you can see is trees, and what isn’t obscured by them.

This of course also relates to the second question. If you stand in one place, so do the obstacles. If you move to where you can see around them, they are no longer obstacles.

In a literal sense, are there trees, shrubs, rocks, reeds, or other things obscuring part of your view of the pond? Are things growing over the top of part of the pond blocking your view below from where you are? Things growing beneath the surface blocking your view of the bottom?

In a metaphorical sense, what is obscuring your view? Often, these are assumptions that are wrong or incomplete. Sometimes it’s ignorance, not knowing enough. Sometimes it is what we are told or taught. In some circles, you will hear the phrase, “everything you know is wrong.” This doesn’t mean everything is wrong, necessarily, but to not assume it is correct. Consider the possibility that it is wrong. Those who watched the TV show House, MD, will be familiar with Dr. House’s signature statement, “everybody lies.” His point, that he tried hard to drill into everyone, is to look past just what you are told about a problem or situation, because there is always something not said, misunderstood, or deliberately lied about. What is said, including what you are taught, and what you observe, is only part of the picture. If you take those as axioms that cannot be wrong, they become obstacles from seeing what is behind them.

Don’t Limit Your Options

Once you have asked the questions and found things needing to be corrected, those answers need to be acted on, in addition to asking the next questions they lead to. Some issues and problems and concerns have easy answers. Add this, remove this, treat with this, and so on. But some aren’t that easy, and we can easily miss the solution as easily as we miss might miss the problem. It isn’t helpful to find the problem only to use the wrong solution and make things worse.

Just as we need to work to not limit our vision, we need to avoid limiting our options. If we only look at certain categories of solutions or only solutions we are taught, it is easy to limit what solutions are available.

I usually phrase is something along the lines of, “If all else fails, cheat.” I don’t mean break the rules or do anything underhanded. I’m referring to thinking outside the box. The biggest hurtle in solving any issue that doesn’t fit the normal solutions is not realizing we aren’t limited to the normal solutions. This is true in system administration, this is true in content delivery, this is true in networking, this is true in development, this is true in contraction, this is true in writing, this is true in art, this is true in science. And it is true in business, and in our metaphoric pond.

Just as you ask questions to find issues and problems you might miss without them, you can do the same to find solutions. And much of what we have discussed applies there as well. Divide the problem into parts, to narrow down the possible solutions, both realized and unrealized. Change your point of view and see what you might be missing. Keep asking questions. Don’t assume you’ve considered everything. Research and consult with others.

Just as it takes practice to ask the right questions, so does it take practice to find the right solutions. Over time, you will get better and better.

The Four Rules

What I’ve been discussing can be summarized in four rules I usually refer to as the Four Rules of Computing. They apply to troubleshooting anything. Most of my career so far has been in system administration and supervisory and managerial positions directly related to it. I developed these rules in that context but have found they have much more broad application.

Rule #1 of computing: “When all else fails, cheat.” (1) When the normal way to solve a problem doesn’t work, think outside the box.

Rule #2 of computing: “Learn to ask the right questions.” Most problems are solved not by what you know but by correctly asking.

Rule #3 of computing: “Divide and conquer.” You have to identify where the problem is before you can fix it.

Rule #4 of computing: “Everybody lies.” (2) Do not assume that what you are told about the problem is true. It is a starting point but keep in mind it may be a red herring.

Troubleshooting Your Business

Above, I have applied these to our metaphoric pond. By expansion and parallel, it is easy to also apply to business, whether small business, startups, medium businesses, large corporations, or non-profits. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions.

You might isolate an issue by looking at personnel, resources, locations and facilities, shipping routes, owned or rented network connections, financial flow, inventory, any number of things. Or by looking at the surface, the middle water, and the bottom, in the form of corporate level management, middle management, and the workers. Or in terms of different markets within the larger market you function in.

Observing from different angles might involve walking through or observing the production floor or operations center. Or sitting in as an executive to observe a sales meeting you might not normally attend. Or taking a random employee out to lunch and asked them about what’s good or bad in their job.

And solving business issues can involve very orthodox approaches, or very innovative approaches.

Don’t limit your vision, don’t limit your options, divide things up to narrow things down, and learn to ask the right questions, and your enterprise, be it a sole proprietorship with just you, a small non-profit, a startup, a small business, or something much larger.

~Bethany Davis,
Caer Illandria Enterprises

(1) I don’t recall if I originally got this phrasing from somewhere or came up with it myself. The only source I can find is the movie Slackers in 2002, but I was using it already in the late 90s.
(2) The phrasing here comes from the TV show House MD. I have found it applies not just to its original context, but equally well to all situations where the problem in question was presented to you by another person rather than one you discovered yourself. Also, it sometimes applies to the data or other source indicating the problem as well, as data can be misleading if you don’t have all the information or it is interpreted in a biased way.

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