Sunday, July 21, 2013

Telling people what to do doesn't work.

Telling people what to do (or what to think) doesn't work. It encourages people to stop thinking about a problem and just taking your word for it that your idea is the solution. So it encourages irresponsibility. It encourages dependence.

An alternative is to ask questions that help the person to find a solution on his own, one that he agrees with. It means that he's responsible. It means independence.

And by filling the role of helper -- a parent to his child or a boss to his employee -- you have made yourself responsible for helping the person create solutions to (some of) his problems -- some of those problems are shared problems in that they affect both parent and child, boss and employee.

So here's an example. Heather comes to her boss Jim and asks "how do I do computer thing X?" Jim answers "google that whole question you just asked me." She did and she solved the problem in minutes. Weeks later she asks Jim the same form of question with a little bit different X. Jim answers with the exact same answer "google that whole question you just asked me." And this happened more times too.

Here's a way to do it using questions designed to help Heather explain the context of her problem and whatever she's already figured out about solving her problem.

Heather asks Jim "how do I do computer thing X?" Jim asks "what have you tried so far?" [With this question he intends to find out what other stuff she did before coming to him, other proposed solutions that she thought about and refuted or that she tried and failed.]

Lets say she says "well I don't know how to do X and i don't know how to search for that." Jim answers "well you could try some wild guesses [1] and refine your guesses with criticism [2] for say 1 minute because that can turn up some useful results. and then if you still haven't figured it out then come to me and tell me (1) what you're searching for, (2) why you need it, (3) what best guesses you've tried, (4) why you think those didn't work out, (5) whether there is another way to meet the same goal as X, and (6) whether there is another higher priority problem that you should be working on instead."

In terms of problems and solutions...

(1) What is the problem? In other words, "what are you searching for?"

(2) Why is it a problem? In other words, "why do you need/want it?"

(3) What are/were your proposed solutions? In other words, what are your "best guesses"? These are the guesses that you did real life testing on.

(4) What are your outstanding criticisms of your proposed solutions? In other words, "why [do] you think those proposed solutions didn't work?"

(5) What are your attempted criticisms of the problem? For example, have you considered that maybe you don't need to do X since there's another way Y that meets the same goal as X?

(6) What are your attempted criticisms of the idea of working on that problem right now? For example, is there something else of higher priority that you should be working on instead?

The boss/parent should be willing to help child/employee solve his problems -- namely the problems that the child/employee want help from their boss/parent for. In order for him to help he needs to know: (1) what the problem is, (2) why its a problem, (3) what the proposed solutions are/were, (4) what the criticisms of the proposed solutions are, (5) what the attempted criticisms of the problem are, and (6) if some other problem has higher priority than this one.


[1] See this essay on wild guesses.

[2] A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea. For more on criticism.


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