Changing the question we ask to a better one

Yesterday I raised a question that’s been very powerful for me as a leader. Today I want to share with you another question. More importantly, I want to share with you a different question than the one we normally ask.

In the software space, where I lead people, we’re often asked for estimates. “How long will it take to build this?” and “How much effort is required to integrate that?” And as a leader, I translate those questions into “can we even do this?” questions for my team.

The core of every estimate question is “can we do this?” and that’s what drives all our estimating.

But this isn’t isolated to software engineering. People ask this question in finance jobs, in medical practices, and across the globe in a variety of other industries. The question they focus on is “can?” and a layer on top of that becomes, “how long?”

Executives ask the “how long?” question all the time because they’re looking for results.

As a result, we’re all focused on these questions:

  • How long will it take?
  • How much effort will it take?
  • How many people will it take?
  • How fast can we get it done?
  • How soon can we see the results?

What if those are all the wrong questions? Or more importantly, what if they’re all secondary questions that should be asked – only, later.

What’s the right question?

Instead of asking “Can we?” the more powerful question is, “Should we?”

One question looks at our capability or capacity.
The other question asks about our strategy.

Which do you think is more important? More useful? More helpful?

That’s why I think we need to be changing the question we ask to a better one.