The stupid technology questions you must ask

Do we get the enterprise technology we deserve because no-one dares to ask the awkward questions? Or do we waste too much time at work because of all the pointless stupid queries that people raise?

Question mark symbol on speech bubble, top view

There are no stupid questions apart from the one you didn’t ask, according to Royal Marines legend. It’s not just when lives are at stake that we should throw off our embarrassment. There have been plenty of IT hoaxes played on corporations because nobody dared to risk looking. Maybe we need a strategy for asking questions. Here are some questions for structuring your query.

Can I see the research?

Don’t ask how I know, but sometimes people make up the research they sell to big companies. How they get away with it? Because big companies have a whole layer of middle management run by BMB (the bland misleading the blind).

Here’s two examples from the very top. Blockchain expert and systems integrator Andrew Bird was once invited to address the UK Cabinet Office on the feasibility of solving the Northern-Southern Ireland border crisis, should the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) vote to leave the European Union. Bird had previously devised a cattle tracking system endorsed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). So, creating a system to track goods and livestock out of Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags, Bluetooth and Blockchain was well within his grasp. However, his proposal was dismissed with the words, “We don’t need it” by a ministerial mandarin who described herself as “the High Priest of Everything Clever”.

Lacking the confidence to challenge this Minotaur, Bird withdrew. However, after British public surprised everyone and voted for Brexit, the Northern Irish border became a massive sticking point because there were no systems. Bird filed a Freedom of Information request with the government to ask exactly how many systems they’d looked at. Eventually they reluctantly revealed the embarrassing truth. The ‘High Priest’ had been winging it and hadn’t looked at a single system as a precaution, should Brexit be the people’s choice.

“Nobody believed Brexit would happen, so they did nothing to prepare,” said Bird, “we are still fumbling our way through now. We’re like a rudderless ship.”

I was once sacked for asking for details about a ‘self-taught’ security advisor who was ‘close’ to future Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Without realising I was getting close to uncovering a scandal, I made a nuisance of myself, constantly pushing for more details about how this person had become an instant security expert, naively thinking this was a ‘fun story’. My endless stupid questions, though innocent, were construed as hostile, and got me the sack! But surely, you might say, it was all worth it because I’d uncovered a scandalous affair and corruption at the highest level. Sadly, not, because the penny didn’t drop until it was years too late.

Summary: Go for it, but sometimes asking for details is dangerous.

Why do you dissolve computers in water?

This is a stupid question, but it’s based on the only logical conclusion you can draw when somebody endlessly mentions the word ‘solution’ but can’t explain their use of that word. You’d think an accurate choice of words would be important in the ‘information’ sector. The phrase ‘IT Solution’ can mean one of two things: either it’s the technology fix to a business problem. Or it’s a computer dissolved in some fluid.

So presumably, when someone talks about their IT, or cloud, or storage solution, you’d logically expect them to be able to explain what problem their technology solved.

But this simple question stumps 99% of people. It does expose how little thought they’ve given to your problem though. Why would anyone ever want to buy a technology or service from somebody who has never even given this any thought?

It’s the same when they use the phrase ‘platform agnostic’. There is only one dictionary definition of the word agnostic and that is someone who isn’t sure whether they believe in the existence of a god. So someone who proclaims to be ‘technology agnostic’ is proclaiming they don’t have much faith in their existence. Yes, I know that’s not what they mean, but if you can’t be bothered to use the English language properly, how slapdash will you be on difficult questions. Jocularity doesn’t work either. Saying: “if you don’t believe in IT, you’re in the wrong job, Mr Gates,” doesn’t go down well either. These people have no sense of humour, which is another tell-tale sign that they have no talent for  ‘innovation’ at all.

Einstein said if you can't explain any concept simply, you don't understand it well enough.

So, these seemingly simple questions are actually a deceptively brilliant way of unmasking imposters.

However, in press conferences, being a smart Alec has only every backfired on me.

Why are your presentations boring?

Brevity is the soul of wit. As America author Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Less is more, it’s better to leave the audience looking for your contact details rather than the exit, says Tomaz Stolfa. As the head of presentation experience at Pitch, Stolfa has redesigned the way we can propose ideas.

“When PowerPoint was created in 1987 it was a digital version of the slide projector,” says Stolfa. “Work happened in offices in those days. Now the cloud has made us remote, so we need to connect. We need to ask questions, but it’s harder as we can’t see the other person sniggering.”

Pitch's research says strong collaboration and the right choice of medium are the key priorities. “Presentations are critical as they’re the essential medium for conveying important information,” says Stolfa, “and when the tools fail to deliver, alignment, communication and cohesion suffer.” You lose the audience in other words. You think they are writing notes on what you’re saying but they are secretly writing their shopping lists or catching up on their correspondence.

Over the past three decades, presentations had the same dull standard for three reasons, says Solfa: The tools steered users in that direction, unless they were willing to invest significant time in creating more compelling content. This is what happens when we have to work around the technology, rather than the other way around. Second, says Stolfa, the main tools to date have all been selfish in nature, based on a single player, and did not tap into the creative output of the team. Finally, we’ve all been using presentations for basically the same purpose the whole time: as static, visual aids for live, in-person meetings. “That’s now how work happens anymore, and presentations are long overdue for an overhaul of how they look, how they’re used and what they’re capable of,” says Stolfa. Pitch is about tapping the collective creative power of a team.

If you keep things short, there is lots of interaction and nobody gets bored. Nobody likes being dictated to, but we all like conversations, because you can ask lots of questions.

What am I doing here?

Marshall Kavesh, CEO of European Computer Telecoms, says his staff get more done by working one less day each week.

While ‘fine tuning the way ECT works’, Kavesh designed an asynchronous period, Deep Work, into the day. In this time there are no questions at all, as there are no internal communications except for urgent matters. In this time staff put Do Not Disturb signs up, close Microsoft Outlook, avoid any internal calls and schedule no meetings. There are two such periods, from 9am to 12am and 5pm to 7pm. Kavesh also encourages staff to take deep rest where they switch off; there’s no eating al-desko, which helps them re-charge their batteries. The programme has been a huge help in raising productivity, says Kavesh.

The biggest source of waste were the meetings but an employee committee eliminated that by setting up meeting rules.

“[We] used to invite everyone who might remotely contribute something or need to know part of what is discussed. Now, we limit the numbers to the real participants. You should not have more than 7 people in a meeting,” says Kavesh.

With its bold four-day week plan, ECT cut its working time by 20%, but saved the time spent in meetings by over 50%. There’s a lot less typing too. Everyone is asked to share their input via recorded videos or voice files, because they create and consume these easier and quicker than text documents or PowerPoint. This allows the participants to brief themselves in advance and come to the meeting ready to vote on any proposition to be decided. “In general, we are making everything that does not require discussion asynchronous and moving it out of meetings,” says Kavesh.

If there is less time for meetings, but fewer people involved, are we better off asking fewer questions?

That’s an interesting question. There seems to be no answer. Can we have a meeting about it? Schedule an hour.