Simple Questions: Complex Answers
Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Simple Answers: Complex Questions
Did you ever notice that some people in a group get irritated when you give a complex answer to a seemingly simple question? Or, conversely, when you give a simple answer to a complex question? Most mixed groups of everyday people are represented by both personality types; those who are looking for simple answers and those who are not satisfied with simple answers.
If, for example, you ask a car mechanic what is wrong with your rough running engine, she might give you the simple answer in a few words. That is not to say that she probably knows there are several things that may be wrong, but if she perceives that you are looking for a simple and direct answer, she has one. Ask a simple question and you get a simple answer. Alas, many things in life are not simple and voluntarily confining ourselves to posing simple questions to complex issues is not likely to produce satisfactory answers.
During the course of our busy lives we very often skip the complex question in favor of an immediate, simple one. If we choose to ask a simple question, we should not be upset if the retort in the form of a simple answer does not satisfy us. That also goes for questions that are only pondered but never really asked. If we privately ponder questions but don’t openly ask them, we are personally at a loss for not obtaining the satisfaction of an answer. Needless to say, we may not like the answer, or agree with the answer. Often enough we don’t get an answer. Sometimes there is no answer. Or answers. Without intending to, we may be posing a simple question to an issue about which there is no easy answer. That may be because a simple question about an issue that is multifaceted is not going to produce a complete answer. At this stage, we segue into the obvious. Most things in life are not obvious, single issue topics for our ponderings. Thus, the query more than likely should be composed of more than one question, to satisfy the possibility of more than one answer.
As a practicing forest consultant who rubbed elbows with many inspirational mentors over the years, the Footloose Forester picked up several good tips when dealing with clients and while trying to solve problems. Some of them had to do with satisfying the immediate concerns of clients. If they were willing to pay for a nickel analysis, you gave them an answer worth a nickel. If they were willing to pay a quarter, you gave them a more detailed analysis. Your company supervisor usually gave you a time allotment, thus the depth of your analysis was always going to have set limits.
Another important bit of advice and an observation voiced openly by scholars was to ask the right questions. Eventually and inevitably, if you didn’t get the right answers if may have been because you were not asking the right questions. Or asking the right people.
During a TV interview between Charlie Rose and a Professor of Management at Harvard Business School in late December 2010, the Footloose Forester tuned in late to catch just a few pearls of wisdom. Professor Clayton Christensen was making the point that he instructed his students at Harvard to ask the right questions. He then paraphrased Albert Einstein with a reference in which Einstein said that 95% of the answer lies in asking the right questions about the problem. He went on to say that even at the national level (in government) some key officials don’t ask the right questions. All too often, the people we ask about truly complex matters don’t really have good answers, or any answers at all. Accordingly, the Footloose Forester tried to make the point to clients and colleagues on his own staff that they may not have asked the right questions; or sought out the people who might have given them some answers that they were interested in and/or tasked to incorporate into their proceedings. It usually verged on offending them, but he believed that it needed to be said.
There are, of course, correct answers that fit with simple questions. A simple question is: What is the capital of South Africa? The simple answer is…Pretoria. But the issue itself is not as simple as it seems. The Legislative Capital of South Africa is Pretoria, but the country has long recognized Cape Town as the Administrative Capital and Bloemfontein as the Judicial Capital.
Shifting gears, there is the old pejorative that people use to disparage someone else: Ask a dumb question and get a dumb answer. None of us wants to be perceived as being dumb, so thoughtful people usually take a moment to think before they ask questions. On the other hand, many a college teacher makes it a point to their students that the only dumb question is the one that is not asked. To their everlasting credit, none of the college professors that Footloose Forester has known ever made a student feel small when the student asked a question.
Finally, there are the rhetorical questions that sometimes do not deserve an answer. At other times, however; they are profound enough and serious enough that they deserve to be answered. Nothing much changes with regard to that category of rhetorical questions, if for no other reason than if they could be answered, they probably would not be asked in the first place.
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