It’s easy to think about data science in terms of trying to “find the answers.” But if you stop there, you won’t get very far. The secret is in the questions.
Einstein allegedly said, “If I had an hour to solve the problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Whether he actually said this or not, it’s clear that Einstein knew the value of asking good questions.
So, how can you push yourself and your organization to follow this approach and ask better questions when trying to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges? Try some of these tricks:
1. Ask, “What’s missing?”
E.D. Morel was a lowly clerk at Britain’s Elder Dempster shipping company in the 1890s who’s less famous than he probably should be. While maintaining the books for the company’s shipments to central Africa, Morel noticed something strange: Tons of ivory and rubber were arriving on Europe’s docks each day, but little except guns and ammunition were being sent south in exchange. He kept probing and soon discovered a system of forced labor in the Belgian Congo that would become one of history’s notorious humanitarian crises. By focusing on the information that should’ve been there, but wasn’t, Morel exposed a dark truth that may have never been revealed to the public eye. These “negative questions” can be powerful tools to spurring your thinking to places that are tough to get to otherwise. If you’re not able to figure out an answer, try seeing what answers you can rule out instead.
2. Embrace your ignorance.
It’s impossible to ask good questions if you approach a challenge assuming you know all the answers. As Nobel-winning physicist and famous raconteur Richard Feynman pointed out in his famous 1974 address at Caltech:
If you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Openly calling out what you don’t know isn’t just good science, it’s also a powerful way to refine your thinking, get others onboard with your approach, and spur great follow-up questions. Annie Duke, a psychologist turned professional poker player, suggests framing your uncertainty in terms of bets, like “I’m 70% sure that our new fundraising campaign will raise at least $1,000.” This approach is particularly useful when you’re working with a group, since it can help identify the differences in what people mean when they say “I don’t know.” It might feel a little strange to start describing questions this way at first, so try some online practice first if you’re just starting out.
Asking good questions is hard, but like many skills it gets easier with practice. Thankfully, nearly any situation can become a chance to practice effective questioning. Zen Buddhism describes this idea as “Beginner’s Mind” — the state of remaining always open to new ideas and possibilities and exploring those idea through curiosity. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for doing this, and his legendary curiosity is embodied in his wide-ranging to-do lists. You don’t have to have Leonardo’s mind to do this. Looking for a way to get started? Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down as many questions as possible related to a single topic is a great way to get started. It’s better to ask lots of mediocre questions than to try to ask a single perfect one.
4. Use an existing tool.
There are also lots of great tools you can borrow. I’m particularly inspired by programmer Julia Evans’ “What happens when you poke it with a stick?” trick, as well as this Fast Idea Generator tool. As we practice asking better questions, Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice is sure to keep us in the right state of mind:
…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Featured Photo: Empower Youth through Technology in Costa Rica by Asociacion ideas en Accion