How hard can it be to make a podcast? Surely, all you have to do is choose a theme. find someone who is willing to talk on this theme, and then ask them questions. The guest then provides the answers. Job done! Many podcasts have used this answer providing format.
But what if you don’t want answers? What if, instead of providing your listeners with opinions or ready made solutions to a given inquiry, you would really like to support their ability to generate inquiry itself?
Asking better questions is a skill we all need to develop for all areas of our life, and for long-living infrastructure decisions in a rapidly changing world it is critical. These decisions impact the lives of many thousands, if not millions, of people and for many decades to come. Once built, they often cannot be un-built except at incredible cost, damage to the environment, and waste of resources. Moreover the ongoing costs of such structures are, as we know, determined by actions taken at the very earliest stages of decision making, when knowledge is lowest!
Some existing solutions will continue to be relevant as the world changes and others will not but how can we tell which is which? Only by asking questions. New questions. Different questions. Lots of questions!
If we ask the same questions we have asked before, we will get the same answers. And if we ask the same questions – blindly – simply because we have always asked them, we will not even be aware of the mistakes we may be making.
But question asking is hard.
Surely not! Any parent knows that young children ask questions naturally – and inexhaustibly! However, at some stage, parents get worn out with continual questions, many of which they do not find themselves capable of answering – ‘why is the sky blue?’ ‘why do people die?’ etc. So mothers start to say ‘Ask your father!’ and fathers say ‘Ask your mother!’ and both say ‘Not now, I’m busy’. In other words we actively discourage question asking at home.
This is compounded at school, where ‘teaching to the test’ has taken hold and teachers know that they have to instill a certain number of facts in their pupil’s heads lest they, themselves, receive a failing grade! In this grading environment, even well intentioned teachers may feel that time out for answering pupil’s questions let alone encouraging more questions, is time that they just cannot afford.
By the time students reach secondary school, they have learnt two things about questions – one, that it is not their job to ask them, and two, that they are to be feared! Studies have shown that in a typical class teachers ask about 90 questions to one or two by students. And the teacher’s questions are designed to test whether what they have taught has been absorbed. Such questions do not lend themselves to the fun of exploration, only the embarrassment and humiliation of wrong answers.
Now the students get a job and it is not long before they come to recognise that asking questions in this environment brings even more problems – asking a question may reveal how much you do not know, or asking a question, particularly of a senior, may seem as a challenge to ‘the way things are done around here’. Better to keep quiet. By this time we have learnt how not to ask questions.
So if ‘not to ask questions’ is a learnt skill, how do we unlearn?
Those of you who are parents might like the story of Isidor Rabi who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance. He credits his success to his mother who, whenever he returned home from school, would ask ‘Did you ask a good question today? (from Hal Gregerson ‘Questions are the Answer’)
And we can do the same.
We can ask ourselves – did I ask a good question today?
This is what our forthcoming podcast is designed to encourage. Infrastructure decision making urgently needs good questions
– but so do we all!