Friday, October 23, 2009

The question is more important than you think

This quote from the book Buying In (40) fascinates me:
The vast majority of our brain's activities - 98% of it, by one estimation - happens outside of conscious awareness...Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published work indicating that people make decisions about risk partly in reaction to how a problem is framed - their risk tolerance changes depending on the working of the question they are asked, even if the issue described is, in reality, identical.
What this means is that you can look at the exact same situation and make two very different decisions based on how someone asks you a question. Nothing about the reality of the situation is different, only the words used in the question asking you to make a decision - and that can change everything!

This means that you need to make sure that you are asking the best questions you can about important decisions for yourself, for your family, and for your teams. Brainstorm the best question that really needs to be answered.

Let's think through a scenario: Your son just came home with a D on his report card. Here are two questions you can ask. Think through your initial response to the first question before you move on to the second one.

1) How are you going to punish him?

2) How are you going to help train him?

Was their a difference in the possibilities that came into your head?

It is worth spending time making sure that you have the best goals for your family and your organization so that the right inquiries can be asked - your behavior and your activities are based more on the questions that you ask, and thus try to answer, rather than abstract concepts framed on a wall.

Here is a great example from the book Made To Stick(186, 187):
Army food is just about what you'd expect: bland, overcooked, and prepared in massive quantities. The dishes are not garnished with sprigs of parsley. The mess halls are essentially calorie factories, giving the troops the fuel they need to do their jobs. An old Army proverb says, "An Army travels on its stomach."

The Pegasus chow hall, just outside the Baghdad airport, has developed a different reputation. At Pegasus, the prime rib is perfectly prepared. The fruit platter is a beautiful assortment of watermelon, kiwi fruit, and grapes. There are legends of soldiers driving to Pegasus from the Green Zone (the well-protected Americanized area of Baghdad), along one of the most treacherous roads in Iraq, just to eat a meal.

Floyd Lee, the man in charge of Pegasus, was retired from his twenty-five-year career as a Marine Corps and Army cook when the Iraq war began. He came out of retirement to take the job. "The gook Lord gave me a second chance to feed soldiers," he said. "I've waited for this job all my life, and here I am in Baghdad."

Lee is well aware that being a soldier is relentlessly difficult. The soldiers often work eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. The threat of danger in Iraq is constant. Lee wants Pegasus to provide a respite from the turmoil. He's clear about his leadership mission: "As I see it, I am not just in charge of food service; I am in charge of morale."
This vision manifests itself in hundreds of small actions taken by Lee's staff on a daily basis. At Pegasus, the white walls of the typical mess hall are covered with sports banners. There are gold treatments on the windows, and green tablecloths with tassels. The harsh fluorescent lights have been replaced by ceiling fans with soft bulbs. The servers wear tall white chef's hats.

The remarkable thing about Pegasus's reputation for great food is that Pegasus works with exactly the same raw materials that everyone else does. Pegasus serves the same twenty-one-day Army menu as other dining halls. Its food comes from the same suppliers. It's the attitude that makes difference. A chef sorts through the daily fruit shipment, culling the bad grapes, selecting the best parts of the watermelon and kiwi, to prepare the perfect fruit tray. At night, the dessert table features five kinds of pie and three kinds of cake. The Sunday prime rib is marinated for two full days. A cook from New orleans orders spices that are mailed to Iraq to enhance the entrees. A dessert chef describes her strawberry cake as "sexual and sensual" - two adjectives never before applied to Army food.

Lee realizes that serving food is a job, but improving morale is a mission. Improving morale involves creativity and experimentation and mastery. Serving food involves a ladle.
What is my job, or What is my mission? How do we feed all these people, or how do we improve morale? How long must we work, or how do we make this incredible?

The power of questions.

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