When we are young we ask a lot of questions. As a father of five, this fact is not always my favorite thing about my kids. But, kids’ inquisitive natures is one of their strongest tools for learning. It’s a cliche that “there is no such thing as a dumb question.” But, why do we often hesitate to ask questions, even when we need the answer?
Asking questions makes us feel vulnerable. When we ask questions it can feel like we are admitting something is lacking about us. And, sometimes that’s exactly the point. If we don’t have some important bit of knowledge, asking someone who does have it can help us fill in the gap. But, that’s not the only reason we should ask questions. For software developers, asking questions can give us a horrible case of imposter syndrome. But, if we understand the many benefits of asking questions it can help us overcome such false notions.
Sometimes we may think we know what we need to, but there can be times where subtle details are more important than we realize. If we fail to ask questions for the purpose of clarifying those details we can end up acting on faulty assumptions. This risk is exaggerated when we are dealing with larger, more complex, issues or tasks. Anytime we have the slightest inkling that there are details that might be important which we lack we should be ready and willing to ask the necessary questions.
Sometimes subtle details are more important than we realize.
Another side effect of asking clarifying questions is it can help others recognize when they don’t have the necessary answers. This can help prompt a whole host of beneficial activities. In a team, asking clarifying questions can push team members to go to their stakeholders to get the necessary detail, and even can even prod the stakeholder when they haven’t adequately thought about what they are asking for. In any case, the value of asking clarifying questions is always a help, and never a hindrance.
Sometimes no one knows the answer, or what we think the answer is has been founded too heavily on assumptions. Assumptions are the enemy of knowledge. Asking questions helps us explore issues and discover, validate, or dispel assumptions. The goal of exploratory questions are to find the edges of an issue and make sure what we think we know is actually true.
Exploratory questions are critical at the beginning of projects to ensure work starts with as few assumptions as possible. Asking a lot of questions up front ensures that you and your team know where the uncertainty in a project is most likely to come from. There is an anonymous quote that has become popular amongst many software developers and those who run software teams that can be abstracted to other fields as well:
Weeks of programming can save you hours of planning.
Making sure we ask the best questions we can up front can ensure our projects have improved odds of success. And, exploring as much as we can through questions can help us identify where our projects risky areas truly are.
Teaching & Sharing
Sometimes it is valuable to ask a question even when you know exactly what the answer is. This can be especially true in contexts where you know certain knowledge has been isolated for some reason. Asking questions that will prompt others to go through the exercises of discovery you have already been through can be an outstanding teaching tool. And, in contexts where the individual details are spread out asking questions can be an effective way to share and spread out knowledge.
The act of asking questions for teaching and sharing is not only a good practice in the normal flow of work. It is also an outstanding tool for coaching, mentoring, and management. When I’ve coached or mentored other software engineers I try to avoid just telling them things. I have found it to be much more beneficial to ask them open ended questions that are meant to guide them down a train of thought to what it is they need to know. This is a helpful technique because they learn better via the sense of discovery, and their understanding is deepened because they worked out the answer instead of having something simply given to them. This tactic has also been beneficial for me to expand my own ways of thinking about things when those I was trying to advise exposed an aspect of an issue I had not fully explored.
There are lots of other great reasons to ask lots of questions and get over the feeling that asking questions means we are not competent. But, if we can start by focussing on asking questions to help bring clarity, to explore assumptions, and to teach and share then we will be doing ourselves and those around us a great service. So, ask all your questions—even if you don’t need the answer, someone else might.