Asking none of the wrong questions, getting some of the right answers

Jun 08 2015

In the coming weeks, we will begin to discuss what the processes of prototyping, marketing and pitching were like for each our teams. And, though I’m no psychic, I’m pretty confident that our reports will mention that central to each of these processes was the constant ability to question. Question our potential consumers. Question our prototype. Question our assumptions, ideas and, essentially, ourselves.

In fact, one of the first things that I remember John Clark, executive director of Reese News Lab, saying in Week One is to question everything. And in these first four weeks, I strongly believe that we haven’t been asking enough questions. Instead, we’ve been too intentional about asking the “right questions” in the hopes of getting the right answers.

For my team, the courts transparency team, some of those questions include, “Could you do your job without legal research and court records?” “What kind of information are you looking for when you pull court and public records?” “How often do you use public records?” While I think that these are the right questions, they only partially lend themselves to the right answers. We weren’t getting the complete answers because we often never questioned anything when we received the initial answer. We rarely asked, “why?”

This week, for example, we asked one of our trusted sources, who is also a lawyer, how often he goes to the courthouse to pull court records. His response:

Almost never.

“I might have someone do it in a particular case, but what I would say is that the electronic files should be electronically available and easily accessible from remote place,” he told us. “That would exponentially increase the value of the court records.”

In that moment, that answer seemed sufficient. He rarely goes to the courthouse. If he really needed a court record, he’d send someone. But he really believes the records should be available digitally and remotely. Mistakenly satisfied, my team members and I move on to our next question. I distinctly remember feeling overwhelmed with regret once we hung up the phone.

“Why didn’t we ask him why he never goes to the courthouse,” I immediately asked. “I get that records should be accessed remotely, but is there a wait that prevents him from actually going to the courthouse? Is the technology, which is incredibly antiquated, hard to navigate? Does he have an associate or assistant go to the courthouse to pull records for him? Why didn’t we ask why?!”

In retrospect, I’m happy that at least I asked my team why we didn’t ask why. It was a signal to us that we weren’t asking why enough. It also showed that we were questioning our own motives, methods and actions. I think it also speaks to our ability to get out of our own heads and to really place ourselves into the mindframe of our consumers.

Reese Felts

From that moment forward, we have been asking why at exponentially greater rates. And when we forget we have our friend, Reese Felts to remind us: Ask why. Question everything.

Questioning everything means being a bit of a skeptic. More importantly, it means getting the bigger picture while also getting to the core. It means fully understanding what your consumers experience, how they experience it and how they want to experience.

In my last post, I said that the Reese News Lab is all about testing again and again until we get it right. I want to amend that.  The Lab is about getting at the core of dilemmas that stump journalists, media organizations and other industries. The only way to do that is to question everything. We might not get it right, but if we question all the things we hold to be true as well as the things we don’t quite understand, we are getting closer to what is right.


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