The Space Between Questions and Answers

My boss has a question. It’s my job to get the answer, but I don’t always have it in my back pocket. Between his question and whoever has that answer, there is always some empty space while I look for the information I need.

So, after some running around, phone calls, and emails, I finally figure out who has the answer, but there is still space between the question (my boss) and the answer (someone else).

Now, here’s the big question:  What do I do with that space?

The first and most popular school of thought is that I put myself in that space and use myself as the bridge between the two. The other is that I shorten that space by making sure I’m not between them, that I push the answer towards the question. Neither is completely bad, but I’m hesitant to put myself in between the question and the answer. Some people insist on it. They force themselves into any space they can find or make. I understand that it puts them in the spotlight and associates them directly with answers, and therefore makes them indispensable, but I don’t really agree with this practice. Part of that might be from my military lifestyle that has me leaving every three years or so. In my opinion, I’d best make sure the organization can function without me. Sooner or later, it will have to, and I don’t want the old job constantly calling for answers while I’m in the first few days of the new job.  I’ve been there, and it’s frustrating to everyone.

The first thing I ask is this: Do I need to be between the question and the answer? At least 90% of the time, I really don’t. When you put the question and the answer together, you get the exact same notice from the people who matter. If you work for me, you get more credit when you keep yourself out of the way.

Another question I ask myself:  Can I explain things to my boss better than the person who actually has the information I’m looking for? The answer: Usually not. Don’t get me wrong, as soon as the boss gets the answer, we’ll likely talk about it and any impact to the crew, but that’s not the same as me getting the answer and translating it. My boss is pretty darn smart, so he’ll likely understand the guy with the answer better than I do anyway.

This leads right into:  What about the follow-on questions? The answer usually results in more questions, so unless I want to find myself running back and forth, maybe it’s best just to have the guy with the answer come in, explain things, and answer all the rest at the same time.

I get plenty of face-time with the boss, but what about the guy with the answer? Most junior personnel would benefit from a chance to engage the boss and show what they know. The junior person gets to interact, the boss gets to connect with his people, and they’ll both almost always learn something in the process. If I can make that kind of event happen, I’ll try to.

Another great question to consider: Do I want to be in the middle on this topic for the rest of my time here? This is a big one. If I put myself in the middle of this question and answer, I’m committing myself to be the answer man on just about everything associated with this subject – for as long as I’m here. If there’s a better person to answer the question who, again, would better benefit, I’d rather he or she get the opportunity to build credibility over time. If you put yourself between the question and answer for a subject, you stay there, and the boss relies on you very quickly for all the answers- forever. Don’t take that on lightly for subjects you aren’t very familiar with.

On the other side of the coin, just to make things confusing, if no one else in the organization has any clue, and you’ll have to look outside to find the answer, then do it. Put yourself in the middle and develop the relationships you need to so you have the answers, all of them, for as long as it’s an issue.

There will always be people who honestly think the answer has to come through them, or that they somehow have to digest, re-interpret, or get credit for the answer. I can safely say that’s not the case.

I get credit for finding the right answer, not for owning it. The organization needs good decisions, even if they’re not my own. The same goes for the information that goes into the process. When there’s space for you between the question and the answer, shorten that space by putting the two together. Please resist the urge to fit yourself between them for no good reason. If the boss is asking you the question to begin with, you probably have all the credit and credibility you need.

Instead, ask yourself:

– Who has the answer?
– Would he or she benefit from giving it to the boss directly?

Have a great week out there.

– JT

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.