Assuming the other person can’t come up with the answer

Just a quick word of warning. This blog starts off away from OSS, but please persevere. It ends up back with a couple of key OSS learnings.

Long ago in the technology consulting game, I came to an important realisation. When arriving on a fresh new client site, chances are that many of the “easy technical solutions” that pop into my head to solve the client’s situation have already been tried by the client. After all, the client is almost always staffed with clever people, but they also know the local context far better than me.

Alan Weiss captures the sentiment brilliantly in the quote below.
I’ve found that in many instances a client will solve his or her own problem by talking it through while I simply listen. I may be asked to reaffirm or validate the wisdom of the solution, but the other person has engaged in some nifty self-therapy in the meantime.
I’m often told that I’m an excellent problem solver in these discussions! But all I’ve really done is listen without interrupting or even trying to interpret.
Here are the keys:
• Never feel that you’re not valuable if you’re not actively contributing.
• Practice “active listening”.
• Never cut-off or interrupt the other person.
• Stop trying to prove how smart you are.
• Stop assuming the other person can’t come up with the answer
.”

I’m male and an Engineer, so some might say I’m predisposed to immediately jumping into problem solving mode before fully understanding a situation… I have to admit that I do have to fight really hard to resist this urge (and sometimes don’t succeed). But enough about stereotypes.

One of the techniques that I’ve found to be more successful is to pose investigative questions rather than posing “brilliant” answers. If any gaps are appearing, then provide bridging connections (ie through broader industry trends, ideas, people, process, technology, contract, etc) that supplement the answers the client already has. These bridges might be built in the form of statements, but often it’s just through leading questions that allow the client to resolve / affirm for themselves.

But as promised earlier, this is more an OSS blog than a consulting one, so there is an OSS call-out.

You’ll notice in the first paragraph that I wrote “easy technical solutions,” rather than “easy solutions.” In almost all cases, the client representatives have great coverage of the technical side of the problems. They know their technology well, they’ve already tried (or thought about) many of the technology alternatives.

However, the gaps I’ve found to be surprisingly common aren’t related to technology at all. A Toyota five-why analysis shows they’re factors like organisational change management, executive buy-in, change controls, availability of skilled resources, requirement / objective mis-matches, stakeholder management, etc, as described in this recent post.

It’s not coincidence then that the blog roll here on PAOSS often looks beyond the technology of OSS.

If you’re an OSS problem solver, three messages:
1) Stop assuming the other person (client, colleague, etc) can’t come up with the answer
2) Broaden your vision to see beyond the technology solution
3) Get great at asking questions (if you aren’t already of course)

Does this align or conflict with your experiences?

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