Friday, March 8, 2013

Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest

This is about the Big Red Question (BRQ for you acronym lovers; BBQ was taken).  It's a deceptively simple question that's terribly powerful.  And of course with great power comes great responsibility.

Even writing about writing about it is frustrating because I had no idea where to start.  My notebook page is full of crossed out sentences because there were too many things to say.  I ended up in the ridiculous position of asking myself what problem I was trying to solve - which was of course trying to explain how to use this damned question responsibly.

I can get as meta as anyone, but that annoyed the daylights out of me.  Something I'd thought would be pretty straightforward turned into pencil scratches and erasures and exactly three two useful sentences.

Plus that little rant.

So, anyway, the useful sentences were these:

1) It's a hardware interrupt.  By that I mean any thinking or talking that has been going on is immediately stopped and all processes in your brain or someone else's are dedicated to focusing on this question.  If you're working full steam on something, a forced interrupt, however useful, is going to be annoying.  Getting past the annoyance is a key component to being able to use the question in a good way.  Not provoking annoyance in the first place is even better.  So, if you're using it on yourself, take a deep breath (or several) and ask yourself the BRQ.

If you're using it on someone else, make sure that they're not already mad enough to spit nails.  If they're annoyed by their perceived problems and/or their real ones, the BRQ can possibly calm them down.  If they're mad at you, forget it.  At that point, they need someone to listen to them and take them seriously.  Give it between five and ten minutes and then see if you can interject the BRQ very gently, maybe with, "Well, that's a big load you have.  What one thing is the biggest obstacle/problem to solve/insert metaphor here?"  If you don't have that long, schedule an appointment.

I'm getting off track. Here's the second useful sentence:

2) It forces a perspective shift without a clutch; this is jarring and disorienting.  Say you've been working all day on some code that needs to do some pretty esoteric stuff and it's just not. coming. together.  There's something missing or something not behaving the way it should and you really really need it to do what you want.  You're describing this in detail in the break room and someone asks you, "Well, why are you doing that instead of this other thing that has that function built in?"

(Side note - I got this all the time in my Digital Logic class.  I'd construct some circuit out of SSI chips and Fred would put a circle around most of it, write "MUX" or some other readily available chip, and tell me "You're working too hard."  Thanks, Fred.)

In the hypothetical break room, you might have known about that other thing and decided against it before. Maybe it's still not a good idea, or maybe something has changed to make it a good idea.  Maybe you started the day working on a short cut that's already taken you longer than the other route would have.  All of that adds up to frustration.  Now the coworker above didn't actually ask the BRQ, but it's worth asking it of yourself, if only to climb out of the rabbit hole and get some fresh air.

So, this supposedly simple question packs a lot of power.  Try to use it for good.  It's much less messy.