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How To Ask A Question

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Vern Edwards

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"A question. Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question."

    Star Trek, the Guardian in “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Early on in college I realized that questions were the gateway to learning. I didn’t put questions to my professors very often. I asked them mainly of myself, then learned by looking for answers. It took time, which was murder under the quarter system of the University of California. (I swear, I don’t think they were trying to teach us anything, just move us through the process.)

I learned that I had to ask good questions. Dumb questions (and there is such a thing as a dumb question) were the gateway to nowhere.

But what’s a good question?

I have long believed that the ability to ask good questions is one of the most important skills that a contract specialist must master. The ability to ask good questions is essential to learning the various facets of the work and to doing the work well.

Suppose you are planning to negotiate a sole source contract price and you have received a price proposal and certified cost or pricing data. You’ve conducted a preliminary cost analysis and developed a list of questions. The time has come for face-to-face fact-finding.

Your philosophy is that cost analysis is just reverse cost estimating. In order to develop a pre-negotiation objective you intend to disassemble the contractor’s cost estimate and profit objective, understand them, assess their reasonableness, put them back together and see what you get, then develop your negotiation plan.

You’re sitting in the contractor’s facility, across from their lead negotiator and the other members of its team. They are waiting for you. The intend to be honest. They will answer you truthfully, but they are not going to help you ask and they are not going to be forthcoming. If you want information, you are going to have to ask for precisely what you want.

So, what’s your first question?

*        *        *

Wifcon Forum long ago transitioned from a true discussion forum into a Q&A website, and much like someone passing through Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief at the prospect of death, I have transitioned from shock, through anger and annoyance, to disappointment and depression, and finally to acceptance of what seem to me to be a lot of poor quality questions. I'm not the only one who thinks so. Some of us discuss the problem often, but behind the scenes.

What do I mean by “poor quality”? The best way to answer that is to show you some examples, all asked by persons who posted anonymously, without any user name, more than a decade ago. Here’s one from early 2003:

Quote

We had a FP purchase order for support services that ended 9/30/02. We did not use all of the funds on the PO. We sent a final invoice to the gov't for the remaining money not spent.

I don't have experience with a FP Purchase Order so I hope you can clarify this for me.

The invoice references FAR Part 16.202-1 which states:

A firm-fixed-price contract provides for a price that is not subject to any adjustment on the basis of the contractor's cost experience in performing the contract. This contract type places upon the contractor maximum risk and full responsibility for all costs and resulting profit or loss. It provides maximum incentive for the contractor to control costs and perform effectively and imposes a minimum administrative burden upon the contracting parties.

Is there another FAR part that allows for us to bill for the remaining funds? Thanks. I appreciate your help[.]

Here is another, from December, 2000:

Quote

What is the standard to apply when calculating an equitable adjustment for a deductive change?

We have a situation where a change was made to a construction contract that reduced the quantity of an estimated quantity CLIN by approximately 50%. The contractor submitted a REA for the change. The REA was for a share of the cost savings that resulted from the deleted work. Essentially, the contractor is saying that he is entitled to share in the cost savings because he found a way to do the work more efficiently than originally planned.

I've never seen an approach to a deductive change like this. Is it proper?

Here is another, also from 2000:

Quote

What paragraphs of FAR 52.212-4 can be used for modification authority in block C of the SF 30 when modifying a delivery order written against a commercial contract? If the Government does not accept nonconforming services, why would it not be appropriate for the CO to use 52.212-4(a), Inspection/Acceptance, to deobligate what now are excess funds. Second part to this question. When can the modification authority for a delivery order ride on the modification authority used for the basic contract when the revisions to a contract have to be carried over to the delivery order.

All punctuation as in originals.

I wish I could say that those are rare examples, but they are all too common. I could have used a few from last week, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

I’m sure that those questions made perfectly good sense to those who asked them. They might make good sense to some of you who are reading this blog post. But not to me.

Okay, so what makes a question “good”? As it turns out, that is not as easy a question to answer as you might think.

I wanted to write a well-reasoned answer to my own question, which itself might be a dumb question, so over the course of the past several months I have read extensively and sometimes deeply in the theory of questions. (The theory has a name: erotetics) and the practice of questioning. It is an important part of logic, science, rhetoric, law, and semantics, and works range from the highly technical, such as Belnap, The Logic of Questions and Answers (Yale, 1976) and Harrah, “A Logic of Questions and Answers,” Philosophy of Science, Vol. 28 (1961) pp. 267-273, to those that are more readily accessible to nonspecialists, such as the entry, “Questions,” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu., the entry “Questions,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7 – 8, and in The Theory of Questions: Erotetics through the Prism of its Philosophical Background and Practical Applications, by Anna Brożek (Rodopi, 2011).

A search of the internet led me to a lot of advice about how to ask a good question. You can find an example of such advice (a pretty decent one) at this site:

http://faculty.gvc.edu/ssnyder/121/Goodquestions.html

You can find another example here:

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/ten-tips-for-asking-good-questions.html

The advice strikes me as sound, though not entirely satisfying.

Recently, however, I came across something that stopped me in my tracks -- a short article by Wendell Johnson (1906 – 65), “How to Ask a Question,” published in Journal of General Education in April, 1947, republished in ETC: A Review of General Semantics (Winter 1948), and published again in a retrospective in ETC: A Review of General Semantics (Fall 1983). You can find it here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/42576616?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, but you need a subscription or access through a university or public library.

It’s very short, only five pages, but dense. The author packed a lot of thinking into those pages. You have to read deeply. I have added it to my list of essential reading for contracting practitioners.

Because it may not be readily accessible by all, here are a few quotes to give you the flavor of the thing:

Quote

Even among college upper classmen and graduate students one finds in varying degrees a naive belief that there are knowers -- that the way to get the answer to a question is simply to ask the man who knows it.

*     *     *

[T]he techniques of fruitful inquiry necessarily involve certain ways of using language, particularly in the framing of questions. Just any old string of words, arranged grammatically and with an interrogation mark at the end, won't do.

*     *     *

[A]n answerable question is one that implies the observations, or reliably reported observations, needed to answer it. Any question that does not meet this test -- any question, that is, for which no specifications are supplied as to the particular observational procedures to be used in answering it -- is to be classified as meaningless for purposes of fruitful inquiry, as nonsense from an investigative point of view. From a psychiatric point of view it may be richly meaningful, of course. This is to say that anyone who can analyze and interpret such a question in a way that clarifies the confusion of the one who asks it qualifies, to this extent, as a psychiatrist . Anyone who unhesitatingly answers the question, without recognizing its meaningless character, qualifies as surely as a fool . One may, with benefit, regard this as one of the more important items in that vast category known as useful but seldom used information.

*     *     *

The fundamental skill to be taught is that of specifying the procedures to be used in making the observations needed to answer any questions one asks -- and in specifying the terms in which the observations are to be reported . Except as the questioner provides these specifications, he can hardly expect anyone else to divine what he is asking, nor can he be depended upon to recognize the answer himself if by some odd chance it should appear.

But my favorite quote in the piece, and one of my all-time favorite quotes, is this:

Quote

It is known almost as widely as it is disregarded that a fool is one who knows the answers to the questions that only a fool would ask. It follows that effective insurance against becoming a fool oneself lies in knowing what sorts of questions and answers these might be. It would appear reasonable to assume, on this basis, that a major responsibility of our schools and colleges is that of providing adequate instruction in the techniques of fruitful inquiry.

Yep, my question, "What is a good question?", was a fool’s question. So I’m going to refine it. That might take me a while. In the meantime, give Wendell Johnson's article a read. It will be well worth your time and thought.

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Love that ST:TOS reference! Harlan Ellison has long been one of my favorite American writers. I should also mention that General Semantics was a hobby of mine for a while (thanks to A.E. Van Vogt) -- so it's great to see it again.

Naturally, I am interested in the question you are probing. It's hard to divine the question if poorly framed. I assert it's not my job to reframe the question but we do try to elicit more information so that it can be answered.

And as you and I have discussed (over really good Oregon wine), sometimes it is clear that the interlocutor is simply not prepared to appreciate/understand/use the correct answer. Do we ignore the question and brush-off the interlocutor, or do we try to answer the question in a manner that might (perhaps) be useful? That's my question and I'm struggling with it.

Thanks (again) for a thoughtful blog post.

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Can a question be good or bad in itself? Or, does the state of mind of the questioner factor in to the goodness of the question? Does the choice of to whom the question is directed have bearing on the goodness of a question? 

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Vern has previously provided some good points on how to answer questions:

1) Answer the question asked

2) If the question is grounded in regulation or policy, start by citing any pertinent regulations and official policy and guidance, then add commentary, based on knowledge and experience, of your own if you've got something informative to say. Provide citations to authoritative unofficial sources.

 

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Don: I think context is always a consideration when evaluating a question, and the person to whom the question is addressed is always part of context. As to the state of mind of the questioner, I'm not sure that you could know what it was when the question was asked.

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