Is The Way We Go About Asking Questions All Wrong?


Saturday, 6.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

“Albert grunted. “Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?” Mort thought for a moment. “No,” he said eventually, “what?” There was silence. Then Albert straightened up and said, “Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right. – Terry Pratchett, Mort

I have always thought that a question is part of a duality, if you ask a question you expect to get an answer.

Perhaps this comes from school and our exposure to a testing system – which is really where we first come across questions and answers in a formal sense.

Clearly, we know how to ask questions before that – if you have children you know that they don’t stop asking questions.

Often unanswerable ones… like “Why can’t I have more time on the telly?”

Answers like, “If you watch too much TV your eyes will go square…” only work for a certain amount of time.

What seems to happen in school is that we’re introduced to exams – where for each question there is a “right” answer.

And over ten to fifteen years of school we’re probably conditioned to expect that questions have answers – that’s the natural way of things.

So, when we grow up and enter the world of work we take that approach with us – we expect a universe where questions and their answers exist together and all we have to do is discover them.

I wonder if this starts to lead us down decades of problematic reasoning.

For example, when you think about your career or you think about a personal problem – do you start with an assumption that there is something that will solve that problem?

Something that will answer your question?

The idea that you can set out goals and a mission and a vision are all attempts to answer questions around what you’re trying to do, what your purpose is, what makes you happy.

And we often miss much that is important along the way.

For example, if you ask someone what is the purpose of a business – there’s a good chance you’ll get an answer along the lines of it’s to make money.

But there are very few businesses where the actual purpose is to make money.

Far more often the business is around doing something the founders want to do, that they have the skills to do, that they like doing.

Money is something that enables them to do it or the lack of money is something that stops them from doing it.

It’s also a byproduct of doing it well – but it’s rare that money is the only motivator.

And when it is – when you focus on the money you can make – you suddenly find that the whole idea of money gets complicated pretty quickly and you spend most of your time trying to make the numbers work.

And sometimes that involves making up the numbers.

So, after some time we should probably change the way we think about questions.

Rather than using questions as a way to find or discover answers, we should think of questions as a tool to help us understand something better.

It’s not the type of question that’s important here – it’s how that questions helps us explore something we don’t yet know.

And closed questions, which give us an answer or open questions that lead us to other questions can both help us to do this.

But why would we do this – why is the world not full of set questions and answers?

To appreciate this we have to understand the law of requisite variety, coined by Ross Ashby.

From Wikipedia: If a system is to be stable, the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled. Ashby states the law as “variety can destroy variety”

This is not a great set of words – and I never really got to grips with it until I started reading Stafford Beer and his introduction to cybernetics.

One way to understand this issue of variety is to think a football team, which Beer used as an example.

If you have 11 people on the field with a ball they’ll dribble the ball down the field and score – again and again – getting hundreds of goals.

If you try and stop them by putting, for example, a big boulder in the middle of the pitch, then they’ll go around the boulder as a team.

If you try and wire them all up and measure what they’re doing and put individual rocks in front of each of them, or put fences around them, they will either go around again or you can stop their movement all together.

What happens is that as you try and put some kind of control in place to stop what’s happening from happening then you find that people work around that control.

And they do that because they’re people – not machines – they have purpose and think for themselves and go around obstacles – and what they’re trying to do is play a game.

Now, what you do is throw away all those rocks and instead put 11 other people on the field to play against the first team.

Now you have a match and a game – and there’s something happening that emerges from the arrangement of players and field and goals.

Fun and excitement and sport.

Now, if one team had 11 players and the other team had 5, which one would win?

This is Ashby’s law in action – you need to match the two up.

If you have a certain number of things on one side then the other side needs to have the same amount for you to be able to manage it, to control what’s going on.

That’s the “variety” in the system that you need to think about.

Now, what does this mean for you and me?

What it means is that there is always variety in our lives, many things pushing and pulling us in different directions.

There is your job and the pressures at work, your family, your health, your money situation, what you want to do with your life, the kind of things you enjoy doing, friends… all the things that make up life.

If you just focus on any one thing – put everything into your job, for example, or go out every night partying then you’ll have really maximized your performance in one area of your life while letting everything else fall apart.

And this works at every level – in your company if you focus just on bonuses and targets then things that aren’t covered by those targets fall apart.

It happens in institutions and governments – if you try and focus on something then something else happens somewhere else so while you think things have improved you’re simply not seeing all the other places where things aren’t working.

And the purpose of questions, I think, is to first make the variety in the system clear – as you talk to yourself or to someone else what you’re trying to do is see the whole picture, see all the places where things are bulging and popping and straining and apply a matching force to all of them, not just one.

But before we start thinking about answers and control, we first need to explore how asking questions that lead to understanding works in the first place.

After all a question that leads to an answer is simple, you can just write both down one after the other.

But questions that lead to understanding are different – they lead to a conceptual map, a neural network – and that’s something we should explore in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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