Great Questions

When we’re stuck with a problem we simply cannot solve, what we need is a great question.

The funny thing about a great question is that it is often hard to recognize.

It can feel slightly off topic.

Like a critique.

Or even downright irrelevant.

Like the person wasn’t fully hearing us and the core assumptions that we know to be true.

But sometimes, if we’re patient enough or stuck enough, we find ourselves sitting with a great question. It germinates in the back of our minds. We process it in the midst of doggedly re-treading the beaten path to our wrong answers.

And then, if we’re lucky, a eureka moment happens. We see something new. A door opens.

What that perfect question did was poke at the heart of a truth that wasn’t true, a strongly held assumption that was just plain wrong.

Suddenly, the impossible becomes possible.

We can’t predict when these moments will happen, but we can pay a bit more attention to off-beat questions before dismissing them.

(Hamilton-inspired) Time for Synthesis

I recently became obsessed by the music from the Broadway musical Hamilton (I know, I’m not alone).

I haven’t seen the show yet, but I’m going to next month so I’ve been reading up on it – so far, mostly articles and reviews, not the huge Ron Chernow Hamilton biography, which is next on my list.

In the New Yorker profile of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius songwriter/actor/rapper who wrote the script and music for Hamilton, I came across this excerpt about his process:

Miranda writes many of his lyrics while in motion: walking around Fort Tryon Park, which is near his apartment, or riding the subway downtown from 181st Street…

‘I will write eight or sixteen bars of music I think is exciting, or interesting, or sounds like the pulse of the character I want to be speaking, and then I will go put on my headphones and walk my dog and talk to myself,’ he says.

Sometimes when he is working on a riff he sings into the voice-memo function on one device while listening to the loop on another. The refrain of Aaron Burr’s signature song, ‘Wait for It,’ came to him fully formed one evening on the subway. “I was going to a friend’s birthday party in Dumbo,’ he says. ‘I sang the melody into the iPhone, then I went to the guy’s party for fifteen minutes, and wrote the rest of the song on the train back home.’”

I get a fair number of questions about how to “be innovative,” and mostly I don’t know how to answer them. But I do think it’s pretty clear that, most of the time, creativity and new ideas don’t spring forth when we sit at our desk, clicking between Outlook and Word (never mind Facebook).

In my experience, my own unanswered questions from an intense period of work will churn in the background until a moment of insight comes unexpectedly, even inconveniently, often when I’m on a run or doing something else that’s seemingly not work-related.

While I usually feel foolish stopping a run to tap out something on my iPhone, wondering if I’m missing the point entirely of going for the run, I do increasingly try to capture the thoughts that spring up in these moments by sending myself a quick email as I wipe the sweat out of my eyes, or recording a breathless voice memo if it’s a longer or more complex thought.

One of the risks of day after day of tasks, meetings, to do lists and email is that we need extra space to go from grappling with big, challenging questions to answering them. Equally important is to remember to put down our phones, in the elevator or when walking down the street, to give our brains some down time to process our own thoughts.

We’re all different, but I think it’s important to reflect on when our insights come and to make more space in our weeks for these insights to bubble up.

For me, I typically have insights in one of four types of moments: conversation with a colleague, on runs (but not other kinds of exercise), when I sit down to blog, and when I set aside larger blocks of time to think through a problem (including reading relevant articles on a given topic). Since I have stretches when I fail to set aside those larger blocks of time, I’m working to make sure I always have space for the other three, and that I experiment with using other “found” moments of time (like, say, on the subway) to generate spontaneous moments of synthesis and reflection.

Probably the easiest shift to make is to recognize that little gaps of time – a short walk on the way to work or to lunch, an elevator ride, when we walk the dog or even prepare dinner – aren’t wasted time to be filled with yet another distraction. These are precious moments to let our unconscious mind come up with the answers that our conscious mind can’t quite produce.

Every project has a marshmallow

I mentioned Tom Wujec’s TED-U talk in one of my TED conference roundups, so I was excited to see the talk go on the TED site today. From the TED blurb:

Tom Wujec presents some surprisingly deep research into the “marshmallow problem” — a simple team-building exercise that involves dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow. Who can build the tallest tower with these ingredients? And why does a surprising group always beat the average?

It’s easy to say things like “we need different approaches to problem-solving” and “it’s not all about rational, linear thinking and finding a single answer.”

But pat observations don’t pack nearly as much punch as an experiment, run multiple times with thousands and thousands of people – of all ages and educational backgrounds – that shows truly surprising results about who solves complex, team-oriented problems better or worse.

It’s a 7 minute video and it’s worth every minute.  (you especially have to see this if you are a parent, engineer, MBA, executive assistant).

(how it relates to the 30-second FedEx commercial will be obvious).

And more can be found at the marshmallow challenge website.

Tom Wujec’s talk:

…and the great, irreverent FedEx commercial:

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Questions and answers

A close friend and loyal reader of this blog has asked me a question enough times that I thought I’d share it and take a stab at an answer:

“A number of your posts have questions without any answers, and you sometimes pose these to your readers as if THEY should have the answers.”

Implicit in the (paraphrased) question:

  1. Your job, Sasha, is to give or find answers for your readers
  2. If you don’t know the answers, how do you expect that your readers will?

Fair enough.

So here’s how I think about it.  When I started blogging a year and a half ago, I had no idea what I was getting in to or how big a step I was taking.   What does it take consistently to develop observations/thoughts/insights/questions and making them sharp enough that they’re worth sharing? This is the gift from readers to the blogs they follow, because without readers what you’d have is a journal (something I’m sure I would have abandoned long ago).   Without the audience, the thoughts won’t get completed; the ideas would lie there, undeveloped and fallow.  This is one of the many reasons I’m thankful to all of you for reading and for spreading the word.

Thank you.

The big unanswered question before you start blogging is: what’s “good enough” for a blog post?  At the outset, you can share all the totally-unique-this-one’s-really-important thoughts you’ve been storing up for a while.  But then you run out of those.  And, for me and for this blog (which isn’t a “I read this blog/article, and here’s my take on it” kind of blog) I know that if I thought each post had to contain a world-changing insight, I’d never post anything.

For me, blogging is the discipline of continuing the conversation I’ve begun with my readers and fellow bloggers, constrained by the time I’ve allotted to blogging given my already too-full plate. So when it’s time to post I am where I am: sometimes I have an insight, sometimes I have an observation, sometimes I have a reaction, and sometimes what I have is a question I think is worth asking.

And here’s the secret: when I ask the question and I don’t share the answer, it’s because I don’t KNOW the answer.  But forming the question and honing it into something worth posting requires refinement, it requires getting to the heart of something that’s I think is worth exploring.

And my hope is that you agree that figuring out which questions are worth asking is as important – maybe more important – as my take on answers.  If I can help you discover a question worth asking, you’re confronted (and I’m confronted) with thorny issues you (and I) would rather run away from.  By sifting through and distilling a good question, I hope to offer up something worth answering, a direction for focusing your (and my) energies.

So on the days I don’t have answers, success is a tough question that readers decide is worth sitting with, worth grappling with, worth sharing with a friend, and worth resolving.

(And when you come up with a great answer, by all means, let us know.)

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