Dale Emery: Staff Engineer at VMWare.
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Bill: I’m talking with Dale Emery today. Dale is a consultant to software teams and leaders. I met Dale at a conference in 2013 and observed that he was sought out by many in attendance for his expertise on various topics.
I also noted that Dale had an exceptional talent for helping people solve problems by asking good questions. Dale, I’m looking forward to getting started and asking you the question we ask everyone: “What is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked well for you or your clients?”
Dale: The thing I try to do is help people use skills and knowledge they already have, but for some reason, they are not applying to their current goals or activities. People always have knowledge and skills that, for whatever reason, are just not occurring to them at the moment. So I try to help people tap into their existing abilities.
Bill: That’s very interesting, Dale. I’m always surprised by what comes out of these interviews when I ask this question. Any thoughts on why you think that is?
Dale: Why I do it, or why it works?
Bill: It’s more along the lines of why do we behave in that manner. I’m speaking from my perspective that I don’t always apply the skills I know I have. When I ask this question to interviewees, it seems to cause some reflection that results in surprising responses to both the interviewee and me.
Dale: Right. I don’t think the problem is getting stuck first and can’t remember what we know. I think we forget something first, and that’s how we get stuck. If we remembered what we knew how to do, we wouldn’t be stuck.
It’s a rule that coaches sometimes say people have all the skills and knowledge they need. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but people always have relevant skills and knowledge that, for whatever reason, they’re not applying right now.
I think it’s because of human limitations. We can never access everything we know. I’ve had friends and relatives who applied to go on game shows, like Jeopardy and others, and during the audition, they blow an answer that they knew. They know the answer, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t come when they need it, and I think that’s a human thing.
We sometimes make the problem worse by becoming analytical, really focused on what we’re trying to do. Logic and analysis are great when we have the facts and data, and knowledge available to us. When our knowledge isn’t coming to us, overly focusing on the things coming to us can limit our view.
We get so focused on solving the problem. We get so wound up in solving the problem that we don’t allow ourselves to step back and let the associative part of our brain help out, let the knowledge come in.
For example, when you’re having a conversation, and somebody says, “Oh, who was that actress in that movie?” And nobody can remember. But on the way home, you suddenly remember, “Oh, now I remember. Maggie Smith! Of course!” The answer comes when we’re not trying so hard to think of it.
Dale: I think it’s just human limitation, just the way our brains and minds have evolved. I think it’s marvelous that it comes to us at all. The fact that we can remember stuff at all is miraculous.
Bill: It is. So how do you help organizations or people through this, Dale? Do you have recommended solutions or things that you’ve done that have worked well?
Dale: I focus on asking a lot of questions. Something about my demeanor allows me to ask nosy questions in a way that people are willing to answer. I don’t know what it is about me that lends itself to that, but I can ask questions, and people are eager to say things that are potentially embarrassing for them or that are potentially emotional for them. Somehow, I create an environment in which they’re willing to open up. So, a lot of what I do is ask questions.
I stumbled onto this approach many years ago. Once upon a time, at the company where I worked, I was the C++ guru. I knew all the ins and outs of how the C++ language worked, and I knew the quirks of various compilers on different platforms. Whenever people would have a problem, something with compiling, or the behavior wasn’t quite right, they would come to me and say, “Dale, what’s going on here?” and I would tell them the answer.
Now, the reason I knew the answer is that I had struggled all the previous day to solve the same problem myself. But they didn’t know that. I was just one day ahead of them, but they thought I had all the answers in my head. I’m sure I played that up and encouraged them to think I was magical.
Eventually, people started coming to me with problems that I didn’t know the answer to off the top of my head. I would ask them questions so I could understand the problem better to solve it for them. That was my goal at the time: To solve people’s problems for them. I’d ask, “So what have you tried so far? What happened? And what haven’t you tried?” One of my favorite questions was, “What haven’t you thought of yet?” That is a strange question that works more often than it should.
I discovered that as I asked people these questions, they would solve the problem right in front of me more often than not. I never got to the point where I understood the situation well enough to solve it. Still, in answering my questions, people reminded themselves of things, and they made connections between things that helped them solve the problem.
One day, the pinnacle of this was a colleague popped his head into my office and said, “Dale, I …” Then he stopped, looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned, and walked away.
I caught up with him at lunch and said, “What was that all about?”
He said, “On my way to your office, I was asking myself, ‘What questions will Dale ask me?’ And by the time I got to your office, I had solved the problem myself.”
Bill: That’s hilarious, Dale! The funny thing is that I heard people at the conference asking the same question, “What questions will Dale ask me!”
Dale: That’s how I got into this habit. I didn’t have enough information to solve the problems, so I asked questions. Eventually, I realized that asking questions, asking the right questions, asking better questions about a situation always helps people get unstuck. It gives them ideas. And often, the ideas are enough to solve the problem. Not always, but often. So this became a core technique for me.
Bill: I can relate to this, Dale, because in the week we spent together at the conference, I found the quality and nature of the questions you asked were impressive. I also think part of it is that you’re a good listener. You seem to ask the question that would open the door in someone’s mind that will provide the solution.
Dale: One of the principles I use is: Follow the energy. By “follow the energy,” I mean that people always give you clues about where their energy is and where it’s blocked. Something about the way the person is reacting. Maybe they suddenly become a little more animated or less animated, or suddenly sit forward or back, or suddenly their expression will change. I notice those things. I don’t know what they mean, but I think the shift means something, so I ask. “What just happened for you?”
Often someone will start a sentence, then stop themselves and go off in another direction. I’ll say, “Wait a minute, go finish that sentence. How would you end that sentence?” And the thing that was on their mind, that they stopped themselves from saying, turns out to matter. Now, sometimes people stop themselves because what they were about to tell is mistaken or irrelevant. But often, it turns out to be important.
The things that are on people’s minds, the things that are concerning them, and the things that are troubling for them, I want to know more about those things. I’m especially interested in what’s keeping them from realizing the stuff they already know, what’s getting in the way of them solving the problem, of using what they already know. It’s often an emotional reaction to the problem, or to having the problem, or to not solve the problem, when they think they shouldn’t have the problem or ought to be able to solve it. All of those “shoulds” and “oughts” can get in the way and keep people from remembering what they know.
I stay well away from doing therapy, but I watch the energy, which gives me information about what questions to ask about their problem-solving process.
Bill: Dale, you asked me that same question, “Where’s the energy?” early in the conference when I was getting oriented. That question has stuck with me ever since then, and I’ve used it a few times with others and myself.
Dale: I remember. I don’t think I explained it well at the time, but I’m happy that somehow the question meant something to you, and you’ve been able to use it.
Bill: I think you explained it very well, Dale. I think the question itself resonates very well with people.
Dale: Another thing I listen to are the words people use. I was sitting with a group of people who were coaching each other. One person described his problem, then said with frustration, “And nobody’s paying any attention to this.”
I noticed those absolute words “nobody” and “any,” and I challenged them. “So nobody’s paying attention to it.” He shook his head. “No, nobody is.” I said, “You’re paying attention to it.” He said, “Well, nobody else is.” And then he thought a minute and said, “Well, OK, there are two people who aren’t.”
And then we were off. We loosened up his thinking to the point where he could attend to who was paying attention to the problem and who wasn’t. The problem was much smaller than he had made it in his head. It was still a problem, but now he had a better understanding. He had exaggerated the situation in his mind to the point where it was unsolvable.
I listen and watch for lots of things and ask lots of questions. I can explain some of what I do, but not all of it.
Bill: It’s interesting, Dale. Several other contributors to this publication have discussed using questions to guide an improvement initiative, but I think your approach is unique. Rather than ask a set of specific questions, you are helping people answer their questions. Do you have any ways to help guide the conversation and direction?
Dale: You asked me about change in an organization. I like to follow the energy in organizations by using an approach that’s become fairly popular recently, called “appreciative inquiry.” I don’t practice appreciative inquiry precisely in the way described in the books, but I use parts of it all the time.
I’ll give you an example. I was at one organization where they wanted to improve their development process in some way. To gather information about how they work and what they do, I got people together in groups of three or four and asked each person to tell a story. “Tell me a story about a time you were excited at work. Tell me a time you were really jazzed. Tell me a time you were proud of.”
Interestingly, everybody had an inspiring story, and the stories had a couple of things in common. Every story was about something possible for these people. A possibility is one of the fundamental attitudes that appreciative inquiry helps to magnify. If we’ve done it in the past, we can do it again.
Most of the stories were about that organization, which meant that each inspiring story was possible not only for these people but here, in this organization. One of the stories was from another organization. But the person thought for a moment, then said, “There’s no reason we couldn’t do it here just as well.”
Finally, every story was something that people had a lot of energy for, and in recounting that energy, they gave themselves more energy for trying something here and now.
I like the general attitude behind appreciative inquiry. What are we good at? What have we been able to do in the past? What are our positive experiences that might have some relevance to what we’re trying to do here and now?
There’s a principle behind this that I learned from Marvin Weisbord, a famous consultant who wrote many great books about helping organizations change. One of Weisbord’s principles is: What is possible here? Always be on the look-out for what is possible here, and appreciative inquiry is a great way to tap into that: Something that works for these people that has worked in this environment where we have energy.
Bill: Dale, I knew that you would have a fresh and exciting perspective on process improvement. You didn’t disappoint. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today.