Plan to Get the True Answer

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I looked at the problems that can arise when someone asks for a study or an investigation and doesn’t plan for the situation in which the answer is not the one expected, wanted or needed. Now, I want to follow up on that with “Asking Questions for Dummies” (tip o’ the hat to the folks who publish the For Dummies books of which I have several).

Here are, in my most humble opinion, are the steps to be considered in asking someone to conduct an investigation or study:

  • The very first thing to ask yourself if, “Why do I need the answer/information I’m asking for?” – This needs to be more than a pro forma question. What are you going to do with the results of the study? What are you going to do if the results are not what you expect? If you don’t seriously and honestly answer this question, you’re stepping through Dante’s gate over which is the sign, “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”
  • The next thing is to write out the parameters of the question you’re looking to have answered. Again, not simply in some pro forma manner, but thoroughly. If there are any key assumptions, you can include them in the parameters – explicitly as assumptions. But be careful, the team may be in a better position than you to make the most appropriate assumptions. You want the folks doing the work to know their authority and their limits. You don’t want them guessing or resorting to taking the work in some UNODIR (UNless Otherwise DIRected) direction and answering questions you’re not interested in. These parameters become what we called, when I was on active duty, the Terms of Reference or TOR. It’s basically a charter. You needn’t make it into any fancy or formal directive, but it is the charter for the effort. Now that you’ve articulated the TOR, the worst thing you can have done is to have written the TOR to ensure that you get the answer you want. If you do that, you’re wasting everyone’s time and you’ve exposed yourself to later criticism for gaming the effort. Since there are no secrets, make transparency a virtue.
  • Now, your team is off executing in accordance with the TOR. You, as the leader, are not off the hook. You need to be thinking through what you’re going to do if:
    • The answer is what you expected (this is good – you got the answer you thought you would and so you have probably done some fairly thorough thinking about how to proceed, and you have some rigorous work completed to support your decision)
    • The answer is within a range of answers that you would rather not have to deal with – but you will anyway. This is okay because you have the documentation to help sort through the options and support your eventual decision.
    • The answer is a real black swan – something you never conceived of. Even this is good, because it’s better to be surprised at the study level than in the execution. You’ll have more time to develop a way forward than if you’ve already committed to a course of action and find yourself with the black swan and having to re-invent your effort while execution efforts are ongoing (kinda like you don’t want to have to add oil to your car engine while driving on the interstate).
  • I think that you also need to make sure that your team lead knows to keep you apprised of progress. You should not use this as an excuse to drive the effort in the direction you want, but you want the team to know that they have your attention and additional resources, if appropriate.
  • Once the team has the answer, I think that you need to have them provide you with a thorough discussion of any assumptions (in compliance with the TOR), their process and their results (with any caveats). This needs to be a discussion – not a brief. You may find it worthwhile to bring in a knowledgeable third party for this discussion. The perspective of someone without a dog in the fight can be important.
  • At this point, you can request additional exploration/investigation/study – but only within the limits of the TOR. Such a request needs to be focused on expanding or clarifying the results – not on generating a different answer. It is, of course, possible that the answer is actually incorrect, but that should become obvious when the process is discussed and some flaw in the process is uncovered (or an assumption adversely biased the results).
  • As critical as asking yourself why you wanted the study in the first place, is signing up to the results. I think that your team and you should all sign (as in actually placing pen to paper) the study results. You now have your answer via a rigorous and transparent process. You can use that to support your decision and make it much easier to gain ownership from others throughout your organization.

Following this kind of an approach won’t guarantee that you’ll always be immediately happy with the results of studies or investigations, but in the long run, I think that you will be happier than you would be getting answers that you are unprepared to deal with or even worse, useless because the study wasn’t rigorously chartered.


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