Grow your team with good questions

Posted on March 20, 2017 in: Articles

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Years ago when I was in the publishing business, for a certain number of years we produced “galleys” (long columns) of hard copy using phototypesetters that read paper tapes punched by keyboard operators.

It all sounds very complicated now. But those phototypesetters were incredible machines compared to anything we had used before. Even the basic ones could output type in justified columns at the rate of 60 to several hundred lines per minute, all the while mixing eight or more typefaces in any of eight to 100 sizes.

Of course, like any human creation none of them was perfect.

The marvelous machine we bought on the used market had incredible throughput – easily staying ahead of our three smoking-fast keyboard artists. There was just one problem. All too frequently it blew out its brains. Probably owing to spikes in the power line, it would suddenly go instant stupid and not produce anything.

That’s when you had to play with its control panel, hoping to coax it back to work. If various resets didn’t work, you had to shut down the machine’s power in the back, let it sit for a minute, fire it back up and reprogram it using a couple of special heavy-duty coated green tapes.

Sometimes you had to do it more than once.

None of the typists liked to mess with the machine when it got balky. Their biggest problem was its unpredictability. Good typists don’t deal with unpredictability very often. They hit keys without even looking because the keys are always where they should be. And when those keys are hit their output is always consistent.

Not so with our AM typesetter. So when it started acting goofy or just froze up, their favorite strategy was to call me. If I wasn’t handy or in the building, they would just keep typing away for as long as they could, piling up their paper tapes until I walked past or they absolutely had to get some output to keep the pasteup department happy.

Only then would they mess with the phototypesetter, and usually to no good effect. It got to the point where nearly every time I got back to the building they were waiting for me to fix the machine.

Before long I started to feel like the typesetter’s caretaker. And its balky performance started to cut significantly into my time and regular commitments. That’s when I decided I needed to deal with the human part of the system in a new way.

Up until then I took more than a little satisfaction – and ego gratification – from getting the machine to work while an appreciative audience looked on. When the machine finally got back on track, I beamed as the typists testified to my brilliance.

But pretty soon I figured out that my brilliance, real or alleged, was being affirmed at way too high a price. For the shop to really be productive, the typists had to learn how to revive the machine on their own, no matter where I was or what I was doing.

That’s when I learned the value of the strategic question.

The next time the typists called me in to fix the machine, I started with a question. “Okay, what’s it doing or not doing?” They explained the specific problem and asked me what I was going to do about it.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. They looked troubled. Then I looked at one of them and asked: “What would you do under these circumstances?”

The senior typist explained precisely what she would do. She would try a reset and if that didn’t work, she would shut it down, bring it back to life, and reload its program tapes. “Go ahead, give it a try,” I said.

She proceeded very gingerly. One of the aging program tapes was a little difficult to load into the tape reader, so when she struggled for a moment with it I shared a little trick to get it seated right. First I loaded it into the reader. Then I unloaded it and handed it to her, saying, “Here, you do it.” Her expression didn’t show any confidence, but she did it just fine.

In a few minutes the phototypesetter was blazing away again and I congratulated her on winning the battle of wits with our old nemesis. “You don’t need me. You can do it by yourself,” I reassured her.

“What do we do when it loses its mind the next time,” one of the other typists asked. “Try resetting it yourself, and if it doesn’t work, turn it off, start over and try reprogramming it,” I replied.

“What if it still doesn’t work?” one of them persisted. “If it still doesn’t work after you’ve reprogrammed it, come and find me and we can all pray together,” I replied. They chuckled and got back to work.

I hadn’t heard from them for a long time when I decided to stick my head in the door one day and ask how things were going.

They assured me that the machine still lost its mind on a fairly regular basis. But each time it did, they had fixed it and moved on. They especially enjoyed sharing the details of when the machine had been most uncooperative – and how with persistence they had won the battle.

They were all very pleased with themselves. So was I.

And you can bet I made sure to tell them so.

Mary Jo Asmus, a former Fortune 100 company executive and now owner of an executive coaching company, explores the power of good questions –
and the neuroscience behind their power.


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