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Monday, July 19, 2004

Binary Advice

Why is it that the question "what do you think?" seems to call for a Yes(because)/No(because) answer?

Apparently, when Jeff Bezos asks people what they think of his latest crazy idea, they all say No Way. (Well, who wants to be a Yes-Man these days?) (The Creative Generalist blog translates Bezos wisdom into poetry.)

Seth Godin reckons that "what do you think?" is the wrong question. Instead, Seth recommends the question "how can I make this project even MORE remarkable?".

In my experience, the question "what do you think?" is rarely straightforward, and I have learned to be cautious about the kind of answer I give.

At the start of a relationship, when a woman asks her boyfriend for an opinion about something she's wearing, he is inclined to say something pacifying. (Says: Yes that looks gorgeous darling. Thinks: We are already late, yes that's fine, can we go now.) In the middle of a relationship, the boyfriend is careful to mix a few negative opinions from time to time ("Perhaps it would go better with the pink"), in order to increase the credibility of the "Yes that looks gorgeous darling" when they really are in a hurry. (Thus the question is not treated as a one-off game, but as a tactical move in a continuing game.)

Here's another example. If a man is in therapy, he might come up with a plan to change his life; and before taking action he might ask his therapist’s opinion: what do YOU think. Perhaps there are some therapists who would give a simple Yes/No answer. But many therapists avoid on principle giving a client a straight answer to any question.

In logical terms, "What do you think?" is a perfectly good open question, that allows the recipient to express a wide range of feelings (including anxiety, envy, or excitement) or creative ideas, or perhaps even further questions. But in practice, the question doesn’t elicit these kinds of response. Maybe this tells us something about the people who are being asked this question, the context in which the question is put, and the implied relationship that the question sets up between the questioner and the questioned -- for example between Bezos and his selected expert. Maybe this tells us something about the egos involved, or about the asymmetry of power and entrepreneurship.

Even among equals, peer review only works under carefully contrived conditions. (Software engineering design inspections: perhaps. Academic peer review: certainly not.)

With all this in mind, I am not sure that simply changing the question is going to give Bezos better information. If Bezos is asking a particular person for advice, he needs to understand what kind of information or idea he would be open to hearing from this person, and then ask a question that communicates this openness.

I think what we learn from Seth's blog is: What kind of questions Seth would like to be asked -- by Bezos or anyone else. And perhaps even: What is the question that Seth will always try to answer, in addition to the actual question put to him.

For my part, my working assumption is that the "What do you think?" question is asking for something of value -- like consultancy. So that takes me into the ways that I try to add value as a consultant
  • asking questions that wouldn’t otherwise have been asked
  • making connections that wouldn’t otherwise have been made
  • developing alternative perspectives/frames/scenarios, that show something in a different light.
I don't see any point in just offering me-too opinions, either positive or negative. Straight answers yes, but not necessarily along the lines you were expecting.

Seth Godin, Maybe you shouldn't ask (13 July 2004)

Steve Hardy, Guidelines from the Book of Bezos (Creative Generalist, 5 August 2004)

Robert D Hof, Reprogramming Amazon (Business Week, 22 December 2003)

Related posts: Jeff Bezos and Ecosystem Thinking (Feb 2004), Asymmetric Advice (July 2004)

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