What I Learned from My Master’s Program: Ask Better Questions

This week, I began my second semester of my master’s program in clean energy. It’s been a strange, challenging and enjoyable shift into the role of a student. I’ve learned a lot in the past four months, from thermodynamic exergy to business strategy.

I intended to share more insights through the process, but the usual student business of readings, papers and exams topped my priority list. Reflecting back on the entire semester, there was one overarching and surprising lesson I learned from my courses:

Ask better questions.

It may seem obvious. Perhaps too basic to spend all that money to learn. Indeed, it’s not even a factual learning. It’s just an approach, a mindset. However, I find it incredibly valuable and too often overlooked.

This lesson stretched across classes and disciplines. I’ll highlight two courses that I found particularly inspiring and where this learning was at the forefront.

University of British Columbia
Fresh perspectives from the University of British Columbia campus. Not a bad viewpoint.

 

Learning Lifecycle Thinking

I was lucky enough to study Energy and the Environment with Dr. Roland Clift. His classes were a constant flow of new takes on established engineering thought, deep systems thinking on standardized industries, on-the-spot academic reference guides, and wisecracks on current politics (“I’d put up signs along the provincial border saying “Go home and drink bitumen”- commenting on the BC-AB trade war).

A major theme in the course was to question the established thinking. He would argue that “just because it’s technically feasible doesn’t mean we should do it.” There are a lot of technically interesting projects, but their development has to be done in consideration of larger, moral questions.

He asks: “Why is so much of engineering devoted to finding more efficient ways to do things that should not be done?”

For example, a poor question may be: ‘how can we extract more oil from a certain geology?’. A better question is: ‘should we be extracting more oil?’ or ‘how can we replace the functions oil provides with fewer emissions?’.

Life cycle analysis learningsThese questions stem from a life cycle thinking approach. A lot of work, engineering and otherwise, is focused on one specific area. Planning, considerations, and questions are targeted while being disconnected from its larger system. By stepping back to assess the impacts of work or of a decision on the whole, those same plans, concerns, and questions have to shift.

This shift supports better questions. These are normally the tougher questions, as their answers aren’t nearly as obvious or easily determined. But, those are the questions worth asking.

An Unlikely Embrace of Business Learnings

In the past, I’ve been wary of Business. It has been a major shift for me to move from viewing it as the Big Bad Business World to Business as a Tool to Effect Change. I’m still in this shift, with lots of questions, concerns, and ideas.

The business classes provided in parallel to the technical ones was a selling point to this degree. I approached the classes with hesitant curiosity, eager to gain insight into the thinking within a Business School.

My first course couldn’t have been a better introduction. The impressive but buzz-wordy-named Strategy and Innovation was taught by Allan Manser and Justin Bull, two professors who mixed business sense and educational rigor.

The class focused on the tools and mindset to approach the large and nebulous problems found across the business world. I finally learned what Porter’s 5 Forces is all about. And appreciated Minto’s pyramid.

However, the core of all strategic analysis is: asking the right question. In the real world, problems are messy. There is usually a glut of information which is difficult to navigate and prioritize. There are many voices, the loudest not always being the most important. Statistics indicating poor performance may be a warning sign or a beacon of transition.

thermodynamics equations
Life, like thermodynamics equations, is complicated. Equations by Valentin Meyer.

The obvious questions could be ‘What feature is making a group unhappy?’ and ‘How can we improve the numbers?’. Better questions dig deeper, looking for the cause, not the symptom. Better questions like ‘Why is the group unhappy?’ and ‘Why have the numbers changed this period?’.

Asking the right questions allows you to carve through the noise to the root of the problem. They guide you towards to root of complex, confusing situations. Better questions are needed because only those answers will guide you to the solution.

It Ain’t That Simple

This theme of asking better questions continues to run through this program. It’s refreshing to go through an educational process and be encouraged to critique, shift perspective and dig to understand the ‘why?’.

This isn’t a necessarily a recipe for simplicity. Better questions often have more challenging answers. Uncovering the root of the problem requires a deeper solution. It’s not the route towards a quick fix.

Yet, better questions ultimately offer peace of mind. It takes more mental energy and emotional investment to dig, to critique, to understand. But, when the answer is found, you can be comforted by the knowledge that your analysis, your recommendations and your understanding of any situation is clearer and stronger.

After a semester in a master’s program, I am beginning my practice of always asking better questions.

 

 

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