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Volume 9, Issue 23;   June 10, 2009: Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions

Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions

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In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
A Katrina rescue in New Orleans

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Lem Torres and a young boy are lifted to safety from the roof of the child's flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The confusion in the management of the Katrina disaster will be studied for years. Much of it is probably traceable to the mismatch between the lengths of communications loops and the pace of the unfolding disaster. For instance, there is video of officials offering assessments that had been contradicted by actual video shown earlier in the same broadcast. The Katrina incident demonstrates that the critical parameter is not the length of a communication loop. Rather, it is the relationship between the pace of events and the loop length. During some phases of a project, loop length might be a little frustrating, but certainly not damaging. Yet, during other phases of the same project, the same loop length can be a severe project risk. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez.

Much collaboration today takes place between people who are unable to converse freely or conveniently. Because people are so busy, and so often separated by multiple time zones, the time required for a response to a question can be very frustrating. This is the long-loop conversational environment. Even a simple question can yield only another question in response. For instance, the first response to "When do you think you'll finish planting the rose bed?" might be, "Which rose bed do you mean?"

The trouble arises because the customary patterns of real time conversation are incompatible with the long-loop environment. Here are some effective tactics for asking questions in the long-loop environment.

Be ridiculously specific
Specificity reduces the likelihood that the responder will need further clarification. Avoid pronouns and generic terms such as "the rose bed" — instead, say, "Rose bed 3G on the south lawn."
But specificity entails risk. For instance, in the question above, if the asker meant to type "3G" but accidentally typed "3H," specificity would have resulted in at least one otherwise unnecessary loop traversal. Specific questions must be accurate. Proofread them twice.
Ask structured compound questions
In a real time conversation we can ask a series of questions, using each response to frame the next question. That approach is fastest in the real time environment because it avoids the clutter of unnecessary or poorly framed questions. But in the long-loop environment it can be maddeningly slow.
A structured compound question is actually a set of related questions, connected by a logical framework. An example: "If the answer to A is X, then I would ask B. If the answer to A is Y, then I would ask C. If the answer to A is anything else, then I would ask D." Asking structured compound questions can reduce the number of loop traversals.
Explain why you need to know
If you're Trouble arises because the customary
patterns of real time conversation
are incompatible with the
long-loop environment
asking a question, describe in detail the consequences of not knowing the answer. Motivate your correspondent to respond fully, accurately, and soon.
When the responder knows why you're asking, a wonderful thing sometimes happens. Suppose the asker is confused about something, and suppose that the asker's explanation of the need for the answer exposes that confusion. The responder might then be able to untangle the confusion. The time saved in this way might be far more than one or two loop traversals. The confusion avoided might have been much, much more expensive.

Discuss these methods with your correspondents before using them. Questions like these can seem strange, or even insulting, to anyone who hasn't seen their like before. And disrupted relationships can be even more costly than a few loop traversals.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Teamwork Myths: Conflict  Next Issue

For more suggestions for the long-loop environment, see "Long-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog," Point Lookout for June 24, 2009; and "Long-Loop Conversations: Anticipation," Point Lookout for August 12, 2009.

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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