How to ask good questions

What is a good question and how to ask good questions? This a good question, right? I have thought about why I as software expert find oftentimes answers others are not finding. In this article I would like to share what I think is the reason why I am able to figure out a lot of helpful things. Almost all people that are smart are also having this way of thinking and this is the little advantage what makes them get better results.  

Definition of a question

Before we can start with this topic we need to spend some time in thinking of the definition of a question. I ignore wikipedia for now and just say a question is a way of communicating with yourself or others with the purpose of getting information. Please read the first sentence of this article again, it is a question. Is it a good one? I think yes, as it triggers the brain to open up a little and get room for getting information in a new context. What we as human beings need to understand is that our brain is spamming us with information all the time. There is not one single second where the grey guy in our head can be inactive. The only thing we can do about it is meditation training to mute the logic part of the brain and allow yourself to cut the "noise". So it looks like we can have noise and we can mute it, but neither of this is really the situation you want to be in the whole day. So here comes the question along the way and is helping you to achieve things without all the spam and without muting your logic part of the brain. By asking a question you are giving you logic mind a task to focus on. When you ask what is 1 and 1 you are turning the noise in your head into a result: 2. This noise in your head is energy of the operating system of your brain and it operates without a pause. This is not the best way evolution was setting this up for us but this topic is discussed in current neuro science studies already thanks to modern brain analysis technics. So a question triggers the focus of your mind into the direction that brings you closer to the answer of the question. Now here is the catch. If you are asking a question that is not specific enough to focus your thought on finding a answer or the question is not fitting the complexity of the problem, the answer you can expect will not help you a lot to get more clarity. Even worse, it prevents you because of the wrong focus. So you see now why it is so extremely important to ask good question instead of investing a lot of your energy in finding the answers. Our brain is just not designed for this way of thinking. The only way to come around this is to ask "What is a good question" because this puts the focus on the process to use our brain in the right way.  

Who you should address to

Imaging you are in a food store. Can you expect to find a good car you really like? They same is true for a question, remember the reason for a question is to figure stuff out. So you need to first find out who can give you the information. Oh, are you kidding me? This is not a big challenge, I know how to do it, you might think now. But let us be very clear here, this is one of the most important and hardest things (except your question is what is 1 and 1). Think of an company with 100 employees or 1000 and we getting to the point. I guess 80% of all questions can be answered within seconds from someone of your teammates/coworkers. But who to ask is for bigger companies always a challenge. That is also why successful people are most of the time are good connected. It is not only because they have more opportunities by this but they also know someone who can give them important information that make them more successful. So, that is why it is super important to know the area other people are good, where they can get information and give you answers. I make a bet, you where having an problem others have solved before, but you did not know that a simple question for them would have made your life easier and your project a better success. I saw this for small topics, and I also saw this where the impact was huge and projects where failing, and also are super successful. To sum this up very shortly I highly recommend to get in contact and stay in contact with a lot of people and please also support them with your skills: Win Win! Oh, wait, I almost forgot the most important thing, the joker. Ready for it? Yes? Here it is: Ask random people you do not know so good or you do not know at all. Do what? How can they give a good answer? How do I know if they are knowing what they are talking about? And at all, ask random people? The answer will come in the next chapter, just keep in mind that the questions I ask for you in the last sentences are the key to a good question.

What to ask

The thought you have to invest into a question depends on the complexity of the topic and to understand the complexity is a challenge on his own. Some easy topics might not as easy as you think they are, because you do not know the consequences. This is related to blind spots you have. And these are not things you do not know that messes with you, it is the fact that there are things you are not aware of and you do not know that you have no clue of it. By this you find yourself in the described situation that you have no clear understanding of the complexity, because you do not know all pieces of the puzzle and you also do not know that the puzzle is much bigger than you have it in mind. This should be the starting point and you always should ask yourself: What topic do I not know that is related to the solution I am looking for. Now a good thing is to ask people you do not know so well (I said this will become super important as joker). The reason why this can work out is because their viewpoint will be more different the more they do not relate to you. People you share time with tend to have similar thoughts, because this is how you choose friends or your coworkers are selected. So asking stranger opens up the possibility to identify the complexity of a situation very fast. In some cases they also can provide a full solution already and this is how it can work. You have a problem to solve with a detail of "something" and you have the same knowledge as your team/friend has. Now you are asking for a solution and they start to come up with things that are 10% better what you could figure out on your own. In comparison you're asking a stranger and you figure out you where asking the wrong question. You got only 10% better results but the stranger has a better question. Why do you need to improve the "something"? Is it not better to use another "something" that would already do the job? Or he could also ask why spending time on improving the "something" when investing time in an total different approach is increasing the whole thing big times. In the IT sector we had a prominent example by looking to the CPU. Every year the speed was better and better but in the end the big hit was to have multi-cores or even the more extreme example thousands of shaders in the GPU. The focus, time and money that you need to get better in something oftentimes is not the best thing to do. So the example also shows what a good question is. It allows you to switch the abstraction level, or small world large world scale of the problem you want to get an answer to. So you should adapt the detail level or area where you are looking for an answer depending on the complexity of an system. You should also keep in mind that questions should always allow a action being taken as result of the answer. A question that is not supporting you to decide about a action you can take is a waste of time, focus and energy. Image this for a moment. You are looking for a way of preventing a lot of apples being bad because they fall from the tree and you think the issue happens when the apple hits the ground. You will ask yourself now: How can the apple land softer? One answer can be to manipulate the gravity directly in the area of the apple tree and create jobs for 1 million scientists for 500 years. Or you could try to put soft material on the ground. So you see, the level of abstraction and complexity to manipulate the gravity is huge, because the complexity of the topic was overestimated by asking a very specific question. Now if you ask a better question you will get a better result. For example: How can I use more of the grown apples? A simple answer might be just pick them up when they are ready. So that is why I think the most important question you need to ask is: What is the complexity of the issue you want to have a answer for and what is in my circle of influence. And with this knowledge you can start asking the questions that lead to the final result.

To sum this up

What you want are good results in life, what this means is different for everyone. So I think the goal is not to search for a answer or a way to achieve it, I think the step that comes first is to identify what it is what you want and only then to think of how to get it. For this you need to ask a ton of questions. If you ask normal questions you get poor answers. If you ask good questions you will get normal answers. If you ask really good questions, then and only then you can get good answers. Until next time...