Monday, 31 January 2011

What to do if you don’t know the answer?

A comment from Ivan Webb in Tasmania on this post contains a link to an excellent site, exploring the issue of - What to do when I don't know what to do?"

Ivan says “Many years ago a class of 10 year olds and I worked on this problem and came up with a really practical answer - it made a profound difference to the learning of many students”.

The rules that Ivan and his team came up with are as follows

What to do when you don't know what to do:

1. Read (or listen to) the question

2. Stop and think: what does the question mean?

3. Look in your mind for the answer

4. Can't find it? Look again!

5. Re-read the question and so on ...

6. Look for something similar

7. Look it up (charts, references, atlases...) then

8. Try something (drawings, dots, words, ...) and check it out to see if it makes sense

9. Ask a friend for help

10. Finally ask the teacher

So how do we translate this into a work setting? It would look rather like this

What to do when you don't know what to do:

1. Analyse the problem

2. Stop and think: what could be going on here? What are the facts, the ground truth? What could be the root cause?

3. Look in your mind for the answer

4. Can't find it? Look again!

5. Look at the problem again ... have you missed anything?

6. Have you come across something like this before? Does this give you any insight?

7. Look it up (wiki, corporate knowledge base, technical guidance)

8. Ask the community of practice for help

9. Finally ask the expert
(I have removed the option for “try something”, as sometimes in business, trying something could be a disaster. For example, when operating a complex piece of machinery in a factory, trying the wrong thing may make a bad situation much worse.

Part of the purpose of a KM system or a KM approach is to make sure that people who do ask, receive an answer. IN other words

7. When they “look it up”, there should be an answer there, it should be helpful, it should be easy to find, it should solve the problem

8. When they ask the community, there should be a community there to ask, they should be easy to reach, and they should solve the problem

9. When they ask the expert, there should be an expert there to ask, they should be easy to find, and they should solve the problem

And does it made a difference?
“Absolutely” says Ivan, in the context of his school. “These students have probably increased their overall productivity by 500%. Their independence has increased even more (conservative estimates). They are much better behaved, happier and in fact life is easier for them”.
Let’s see if we can do the same in the context of work.


Mark Gould said...

I think there may be a way of introducing the 'try something' element. (Why would we want to do this? The answer for me is in the learning experience -- trying and failing will cement the right answer better than just being given it on a plate.)

How do we ask questions? If we encourage people just to say, "I need to achieve this outcome; tell me how to do that," then we run the risk that they will not actually learn the right thing to do, and will ask the same question next time, and the time after that, and so on until it eventually sticks.

On the other hand, if people are encouraged to pose their question once they have reached a tentative conclusion ("I think this is the right thing to do; am I correct?") then the answer is more likely to stick.

Nick Milton said...

I think it depends on the situation, Mark, and how big the consequences of failure are. In some situations I agree, in others I disagree with you.

Trying and failing may cement the right answer, but the consequences could sometimes be severe. Trying and failing to safely shut down a refinery, or secure the renewal of a prime contract, or avoid contamination in your pet-food factory, or drill a deep-water well, might be career-limiting moves (or, in some cases, life-threatening).

Part of the value in KM, as I see it, is that we can cement learning without having to fail first.

And to be honest, there may be nothing wrong with people asking the question every time, if the alternative is failure. Our objective in business is driven by business results, where the objective in school is driven by personal learning.

I agree with you about the tentative conclusion, by the way, and I have seen many questions raised in communities of practice along the lines of "This is our problem, we are thinking of trying this solution, can anyone see any risks and/or suggest a better way".

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