There is no such thing as a dumb question!

May 3, 2018 by Guy Sharrock, Jenny Haddle, Dane Fredenburg Comments (0)
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According to Carl Sagan, in his 1997 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, there are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”

In our earlier blog (see Adapting: Why Not Now, Just Do It!) we described how one multi-year Development Food Assistance Project entitled United in Building and Advancing Life Expectations (UBALE) was finding ways, with support from USAID/Food for Peace (USAID/FFP), to implement the notion of ‘adapting’. In conjunction with implementing partners, Save the Children, CARE and CADECOM, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is aiming to deliver support to 250,000 households struggling to sustain their livelihoods in the most food-insecure region of Malawi.

Asking questions: a fundamental skill

Asking questions and seeking answers is vital for learning, accountability and high performance. It seems to us – through our work with UBALE on evaluative thinking – that asking thoughtful questions is a fundamental skill that is required by everyone engaged in CLA.

There are three elements that seem worthy of note (probably many more, but three will do for now!):

  1. Feeling safe enough to speak up and ask questions
  2. Developing and sustaining the habit of respectfully asking questions
  3. Ensuring there are processes to address questions

In this blog, we will address the first two elements; in a related blog, Adam Yahyaoui and Mona Lisa Bandawe will describe a process that UBALE has recently undertaken to refine and package some critical learning questions that will be advanced over the course of this year.

It’s okay to ask questions

Evaluative Thinking: Critical thinking applied in the context
of monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning

As individuals, we sometimes feel that if we ask questions, our supervisor, colleagues and peers may consider us negative or intrusive or worse still, ignorant or incompetent. This stops us from flagging concerns about our program performance, or allowing ourselves to have a different opinion from the majority view. Let’s be frank: it’s just easier not to ‘rock the boat’.

This challenge is not confined to a specific project or program, country, region or culture, nor to any work setting, whether it be government, non-profit or private sector. It is not even a novel concern: according to Kofi Kisse Dompere, there is a traditional African thought suggesting that, “No one is without knowledge except he who asks no questions.”

So, too often the so-called enabling environment for those who wish to ask questions can feel disabling or, at the very least, not hugely supportive. In her excellent TEDx video, Professor Amy Edmondson, opens with three vignettes illustrating different scenarios when an individual’s desire not to want to look dumb overcame the need to ask a question. She suggests that this can matter because, “it robs us, and our colleagues, of small moments of learning.” She proposes three things that can help to build a ‘psychologically safe’ office climate:

  1. Frame the work as a learning opportunity, not merely an activity to be completed. In a complex setting, such as the one in which UBALE is intervening, there are a lot of interventions for which it is not possible to know in advance what will be the outcome, nor what will be any unintended consequences, good or bad, at least not with absolutely certainty. It is this uncertainty, and the systemic nature of the setting, that justifies those involved to see each activity as a learning event. In Edmondson’s words, this “creates the rationale for speaking up.”
  2. Admit to your own shortcomings, as you surely can’t have a monopoly on wisdom! You cannot know everything in advance, you will miss things, particularly when operating in a complex setting where there are so many moving parts. So, for the task or activity to be performed to a high standard, you need the help of your colleagues and partners. This “creates more safety for speaking up,” according to Edmondson.
  3. Encourage lots of questions by modeling this yourself, and encouraging others similarly. This makes it essential for staff to speak up.

Developing the ‘questions’ habit

While it is a critical element, ensuring that the working environment is ‘psychologically safe’ is, on its own, insufficient to achieve high-quality CLA. It is equally important that staff know how and when to ask questions in a respectful manner.

Let’s assume senior managers have ‘bought-in’ to the importance of psychological safety, and start asking lots of questions; their aim is to encourage their colleagues and subordinates to follow suit. But this may not come naturally, or easily to those whose behavior they are seeking to change. Among our evaluative thinking resources, we suggest types of questions that help you know when evaluative thinking and learning is happening:

  • Why are we assuming X? What evidence do we have?
  • What is the thinking behind the way we do Y? Why are we not achieving Y as expected?
  • Which stakeholders should we consult to get different perspectives on X? and so on.

In the early part of our capacity strengthening work with UBALE a good amount of time was spent on this topic, both question generation, and practice in asking them. It was apparent that some colleagues found it easier than others to acquire and apply the skill; however, with time and practice, UBALE staff demonstrated that everyone has the capacity to ask questions that contribute to improved project learning. Our implementation intention should be to make it a habit!

We are planning to trial a couple of ideas arising from our recent work with UBALE to instill a habit of question asking, especially in field staff:

  • Working with staff to develop portable ‘flash cards’, each containing a question that can unlock a new line of inquiry, and
  • Bringing greater intentionality and being more systematic through developing checklists or question prompt lists that will help staff avoid any unwitting blind spots as they develop the ‘asking questions’ habit

Three key CLA lessons

  • Asking questions implies organizational change. Things are different with CLA, or at least they should be. Adopting a CLA approach implies that an organization is committed to becoming a true learning organization in which processes for asking and discussing questions are embedded in all operations. This obliges the right kind of enabling conditions.
  • Asking questions is critical to CLA. The Nobel laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote, “I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.” If monitoring data appear to suggest some variance between expected versus actual achievements, it is important to ask why, and what are the implications for project activity. This necessitates asking questions to deepen understandings of what is happening, and an openness to adapting earlier thinking. This requires appropriate processes and tools.
  • Asking questions requires a certain kind of staff. CLA necessitates staff who are, in the words of David Garvin and Amy Edmondson, “tough-minded enough to brutally confront the facts; to talk directly about what works, and what doesn’t work. It’s about being straightforward.” This must be conducted in a way that respects other people and their perspectives. This requires new staff skills.

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