Asking “What does that look like?”

I had a fun time a short while ago talking to Richard Atherton of the Being Human podcast. If you want to explore other people’s thinking on humanity and the workplace there’s a huge archive of conversations with many different people.

One of the things we talked about there was one my most-used questions: “What does that look like?” I’ve written before about the importance of asking unbiased questions and about the value of precise language. This topic relates to those.

When talking to someone (and, as Richard and I discussed, listening to them) it’s really important to understand exactly what they mean, and not jump to conclusions. That’s difficult because we all use imprecise language and even when we think we’re using precise language it can be misinterpreted.

A while back I was helping someone who had just joined an engineering team in a leadership role. He’d met the people, was enthusiastic about working with them and helping them “but,” he said, “the team doesn’t have a good engineering vibe.” This is a very obvious example of imprecise language. This person was very experienced, so I didn’t doubt he recognised something lacking from the team, but if I was to help him then I needed to be really clear about what that was.

So I asked the question I often ask: “What does that look like?” It’s behaviour that counts, so that’s what I want to know about—not someone’s thoughts and interpretations. So what had he seen or heard that made him say the team doesn’t have a good engineering vibe?

Often when I ask this question it’s not easy to answer—it involves thinking of pretty specific examples. Sometimes, when they’ve remembered specific situations, they alter their original statement, which shows the person is being more precise.

In this case the engineering leader said he was uncomfortable with the lack of a desire to learn and share skills. He was happy with their ability to deliver, but noted that each person worked on “their” part of the codebase, and that their technologies were very old, which meant it was very difficult to attract new people into the team. This was much more tangible than any kind of “vibe”, and something we were able to explore practically.

Note, by the way, I didn’t ask “what does a good engineering vibe look like?” That might be an interesting discussion over a few beers, but here I was interested in what was happening in the team, not an abtract ideal.

Asking “What does that look like?” helps make intangible or possibly-ambiguous descriptions much clearer.

Meanwhile, that podcast is available on the Being Human website, iTunes, YouTube and Podbean.

Image from the Being Human podcast