Monday, May 02, 2011

On Asking Good Questions

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a (good) question is worth 10 times a much. [*]

If you ever find yourself across the interview desk from me, be prepared. I'm going to set up the following scenario: without warning, you've just been brought into a meeting with a client that you've never met before (yes, this happens all the time here, no matter how much we harp about it to management). They have an urgent problem involving this sample (yes, I'll have a show-and-tell from a past client). I will explain to you that you are not expect to solve the problem but I want to see what you would say to the client in that situation, how you would handle the situation to ensure that we get the job. The wrong answer is "I'll bring it back to the experts in the lab and let them whack at it". It's wrong because it is not unique; it won't differentiate Aspen Research from any of our competitors. I've seen this response from candidates in the past and it pretty much ends things in my mind for them no matter how impressive their resume is.

The correct approach is to start asking questions. Powerful questions. The questions that are of a whole other class. These are the questions that when properly asked, show that you are already formulating a potential solution to their problem even when you are still just meeting with them and nowhere near the lab. "Have you looked at X?" "Why did you test Y?" "What would you think if we did Z?" These are questions, with closely related follow-ups, that start a discussion. The client is now engaged with us, and there is back-and-forth. I've not seen us ever lose a potential client when this happens.

The challenge is to make sure the questions are not too pointed, making the responder feel under attack. A good lead-in is to add a hypothesis to set up the question: "I'm thinking your might have Q going on; we could test that by running P. Do you think that is a good idea?" (with the obvious subtext that yes, we are already working on your problem even though we just met, our instrument is in need of repair and the technician that runs it just left for a 3 week vacation in Burkino Faso).

I realize that most of you are not in the contract R & D business, but the issue is still relevant to all, and asking good questions is a fantastic skill to have. Even if you are not interviewing with me, you need to ask questions during any job interview and that engagement is critical to succeeding at that task. (No one who sat there listening without talking and without asking questions would ever get hired by anyone anywhere.) Practice at a poster session. The stiff standing at the board will be happy to have someone, (anyone!) to talk to, and when you fall flat on your face, you can just shuffle along to the next poster and it's a fresh start.

[*] And yes, despite the adage to the contrary ("there's no such thing as a dumb question") there are dumb questions. "So Mr. President, are you saying that Osama bin Laden is dead?"

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