Creating an Ask & Answer Culture
Before I settled into a career as a software developer, I worked many odd jobs throughout my twenties – a lot of which were in restaurants. As I grew more experienced, I landed in progressively more sophisticated environments – and eventually was in a world where a lot was on the line with each patron served. During those ten years, I waited on more than 20,000 people. But just one disaster dinner with a high-value client could easily cost an upscale restaurant $50-$100K per year in lost revenue. Fail one of these clients: they will never return, and you may never hear why.
One busy restaurant had a pre-theater dinner rush. We would serve 200 guests in 1.5 hours – typically a 3-course meal with at least one bottle of wine – so there was a lot to pack into the dinner. Each waiter had 8 to 10 tables and a support staff of bussers, runners, a barista, and two bartenders. There was little room for error – the dinner had to be served quickly – or the guest would have to walk out mid-meal to make their showtime. It happened on occasion – it was not pretty.
Building and managing a team that could work together night after night to meet these demands was no small feat. A large part of the success resulted from ongoing training sessions that ensured things ran as smoothly as possible.
During those sessions, one of the most oft-repeated, yet simple nuggets of advice was: “Ask for help!”
Ok, easy enough, right? So what’s the problem? To put it plainly – it was never, ever that simple.
When we ask for help, we run headfirst into the fear that we will be judged for not knowing what we should know. In his article about tips to ask for help on the Psychology Today website, Jeffrey Davis notes that “we are loathe to ask for help because this seemingly simple act carries a number of high social risks: rejection, vulnerability, diminished status, and the inherent relinquishing of control.” (1)
As a waiter, when I found myself “in the weeds” I would finally reach a breaking point where I’d try to get someone to perform any number of tasks on my behalf. Most of the time – too late. I was so underwater that the assistance I could elicit was not enough to save my butt. This undesirable outcome continued for years. Eventually, a light went off – it occurred to me that I should be asking for help BEFORE I was in the weeds.
Seems easy enough, right? Ask for help before you are in trouble – when you still have the perspective and time to delegate.
So, I started doing exactly that. I checked my ego when I could see a problem brewing – like when the hostess sat five tables at once in my section – I would request help from my colleagues.
Ok, so what’s the problem? Well, I faced an immediate backlash – “why are you asking me for help – you’re not even in the weeds?”
It took months to work this idea into the group culture. The notion that we should be asking each other for help before things got out of hand was foreign to everyone. People needed to understand how these ideas fit into the group’s objective, and how imperative it was to transcend the personal blockers that prevented people from reaching out to one another.
Over time we worked through the paradigm shift as a team – and eventually, we had fewer problems and fewer upset customers. We created an environment where asking for help was seen as a positive trait.
Another key takeaway from this experience was that getting someone to “ask for help” was only one side of the equation. While we had to develop a culture that fostered the act of “asking” – alongside that was the equally important aspect of “answering!” Both of these ideas were critical to creating a question-positive atmosphere at Mavice.
One of the potential failure points is not investing time into answering questions. If a junior developer is met with derision when they ask a question – they will eventually stop asking. Silence hurts the whole team. The folks with the answers have to invest time into being available (sometimes it can be very annoying). When we are asked a question – it’s an opportunity on many levels. We get to help with the person’s problem-solving, and with their conversational approach. Being there for them without judgment creates trust, and if managed well that trust can result in very beneficial outcomes over time. Summer Allen, in her 2018 white paper ‘The Science of Generosity’ (2) reports that ‘generosity is likely an important evolutionary adaptation for our species.’ So despite our current hyper-competitive workplace, we are deeply rooted to help each other.
At Mavice we run a tight-knit development crew that ships a lot of code day in and day out. We don’t have the luxury of working in silos. It can be very challenging for a developer to speak up with a question given the busy nature of everyone’s day. And in fairness, part of doing this work is the joy of solving a problem on your own.
But there are so many variables in a given workday – it can be tricky figuring out when it’s appropriate to ask for help.
- How long is too long to wait before asking?
- Being aware of what other team members are working on might help you find the most appropriate time to engage.
- Understanding who is the best subject matter expert for a given issue can save everyone a lot of time.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these issues – it often depends on a “read of the room.” These subtleties can be addressed over time as part of the group’s conversation around this practice.
Much like the condensed time frame the waiter in a busy restaurant deals with – we have tight timelines to deliver clean and working code to our clients. Being able to ask for help in advance of mounting problems makes all the difference.
Five tenets of an Ask & Answer culture:
- Ask before its too late
- Ask the right person
- Ask at the right time
- Bundle questions
- Prioritize Answering
By creating an “Ask & Answer” culture, your company can dramatically reduce last-minute stress, missed deadlines, and errors in your deliverables.