Friday, December 22, 2017

Asking Engineers the Right Questions

In our extensive study of the Columbia space shuttle accident, Amy Edmondson, Richard Bohmer, and I examined the culture and leadership at NASA. Specifically, we analyzed the forces that made it difficult for engineers such as Rodney Rocha to speak up regarding their safety concerns, and we looked at how leaders did not ask probing questions to elicit dissenting views. 

When I teach the case to engineers and other technical experts, I often hear them say that management needs to understand how to ask engineers the right questions, and how to interpret their results. They argue that engineers were not going to scream, "There is a safety-of-flight risk!" unless they had conclusive evidence. The engineers' lack of complete certainty might lead to them to give answers that that are interpreted incorrectly by management. Organizational leaders might be looking for a definitive statement expressing alarm and grave concern, but they won't get it if there is scientific uncertainty. 

Today, I ran across a good quote (in Fast Company) from Google's long-time Chairman and CEO, Eric Schmidt, regarding this issue. Scmidt explains how you have to ask multiple questions, in different ways, to make sure you are getting the whole picture when working with technical experts: 

They are taught to think logically. If you ask engineers a precise question, they will give you a precisely truthful answer. That also tends to mean that they’ll only answer the question that you asked them. If you don’t ask them exactly the right question, sometimes they’ll evade you — not because they’re lying but because they’re being so scrupulously truthful.”

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