Ask, don't answer

This is a continued meditation on the difficulty of multi-shore communication.

I sat in on a status call with one of my teams today. We had one manager and three subject matter experts on our end, and a team of about 15 engineers and team leads on the conference phone in India.

I'll preface my commentary by saying that Monday morning quarter backs have the easiest job in the NFL. I've been leading calls with teams in India for a few years. I seldom get to sit and listen to my guys lead calls. So this is likely a case of "do as I say, not as I do".

My guy, who was leading the call, was doing a good job. He was holding our India team accountable for some very tough technical stuff. He knew what needed to be done, and clearly wanted to make sure that the guys on the other end of the phone were on the ball. So he asked a bunch of probing questions:

For example, he asked:

- What versions of Outlook are you testing this feature against?

Good question, I thought. Let's see what they say...

Then he continued...

- You're testing with Outlook from an Office 2000 and an Office XP installation, right?

Oooooh. Bummer.

Of course, they answered:

- Yes. We're testing with Outlook from an Office 2000 and an Office XP installation.

What did we learn in that exchange? Not much, really.

I'm cynical by nature. Communication, when based on cynicism, becomes a matter of "trust but verify". The guy leading the call missed a big opportunity. He asked a tough question, and proceeded in the same breath to give the folks he asked the answer. He got assurance that they were doing the testing "right", but he doesn't really know if they get it or not.

A better approach would be something like:

- Can you tell me what versions of Outlook you're testing with?

It's a simple change, but it's critical when attempting to communicate and lead without being in the room with the people doing the work. In that model, you get to find out exactly what the folks on the other end are doing and thinking.

I sum it up with a simple, easy to remember missive: ask, don't answer.

It gives the folks on the other end a chance to be smart, and if they don't get it, it gives you a chance to learn that and correct it, before it's a big problem. It may seem kind of mean spirited and distrustful, but I really think it's a win-win.

Ask, don't answer.

And by the way, do as I say, not as I do.

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