21st Century Education: Ask the Right Questions

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

In school, we’re constantly taking tests to gauge how well we’ve learned last week’s material. We cram geographic boundaries, the dates of battles, and multiplication tables into our heads and spit out the results.

Sadly, those rote memorization skills and the ability to answer pre-formulated questions doesn’t help us as entrepreneurs. When building a new business model, there is no test or quiz to cram for. It’s as if we sat down for our final and open up the exam book only to find a blank piece of paper in front of us.

Question mark - What questions should we be asking?“Where is the test?” we ask.

“Right there in front of you, “ answers our teacher.

“Is there a right answer?” we hesitantly inquire.

“Yes there is,” assures our teacher.

“What are the questions?” we plead.

“That’s what you have to figure out.”

As an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur) we can’t just guess at the answers without first identifying the right questions to ask. If we just guess by building a fully functioning product, it’s very likely that the market will judge us wrong and punish us with zero sales and bankruptcy.

Our job, as an entrepreneur, is to first ask the right questions and only then to find the right answers.

21st Century Education

every experiment leaning goal(Note: I wrote the above text as part of The Startup Real Book to explain why the book focused so much on asking the right questions instead of handing out Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 answers. I wanted to repost it here because I’m deeply concerned about the state of education in the US and the world.)

We (in the US at least) should be concerned by how badly our students do on standardized tests, but we ought to be terrified of shifting to rote learning.

Standardized tests are a metric. They tell us something about our education system but the metric is not the goal. Doing well on standardized tests does not produce value.

If we refocus our entire educational system around the metric instead of the goal, we’re doing an immense disservice to our students.

We shouldn’t be drilling students on answers. We should be teaching how to ask great questions.

Diplomas & Certificates

A Diploma for Asking the Right Questions?The focus of recruiting in top tier tech companies isn’t in having the perfect skill set. It doesn’t matter if the engineer knows Rails or Java. It matters how they think.

Academic credentials that demonstrate a baseline competency does opens doors. Having a Stanford degree is still pretty badass and will remain so for a long time. For some companies, desperate for warm bodies, a degree or certificate may be all the qualification required to be hired on the spot. But the great companies don’t hire for just skills.

They hire for culture. They hire for determination. They hire for the ability to rapidly improve those skills and figure things out from a blank sheet of paper.

Wish List

I’ve been looking back at the dozens of accelerators and hundreds (if not thousands) of entrepreneurs I’ve worked with over the last 6 years. I’ve also been thinking about my own haphazard entrepreneurial journey going back to when I was playing guitars in coffee shops two decades ago. From that, I have a wish list.

These are the things I wish I had learned long, long ago. I wish I had a few more decades just to practice these skills. They are also the things I wish entrepreneurs knew before they went into an accelerator.

Focus on the Question, then Figure out the Answer

Too many entrepreneurs assume they have to know everything in order to get funding. They jump to answer every question with the confidence of a prophet.

But when we pretend to know everything and jump straight to the answers, we’re invariably failing to ask the right question. Trying to fool everyone into thinking we know everything just winds up fooling ourselves.

Admitting ignorance allows us to ask the right questions.

Prioritization

Priority doesn't have a pluralThe word priority should not have a plural. What’s the one thing we should be working on this week?

Retrospectives

Critically looking back at our own behavior is the only thing that lets us improve. Regularly managing that process is a hard won skill.

Some startups get lucky. Most successful ones make their own luck by continually improving.

Communication

Listening is a critical skills for startups and entrepreneurs

Often the desire to express our own opinions overrides our ability to hear other points of view. Communication starts with listening.

It’s very easy to blame others for mishearing us or not saying what they meant. The fault is always partly with the speaker and partly with the listener.

We need to practice listening, repeating the key points back, listening again for confirmation. Expressing ourselves, listening for confirmation.

(Note: Listening is also a key component in conducting good customer discovery interviews.)

Emotional Awareness

Very Disappointed CustomerWhy the hell don’t we teach this in kindergarten?

How much better off would we be as adults? How much better would we be as a society if everyone could identify when we’re feeling angry or nervous?

Instead of just lashing out for unrelated reasons, we might take a step back, make some space, and use emotions to drive us…not let them control us.

How many “founder issues” could be avoided with a little bit of emotional awareness?

Patience

temporary completenessPatience doesn’t mean complacency. It’s good to want to move forward. It’s good to be quick and iterate.

But results take time and patience.

Lessons Learned

I don’t have any lessons learned here. I don’t have a strong thesis to defend here and very little advice.

But something is bothering me about Education in the 21st century and I hope it’s bothering you too.

What am I missing? What should we be teaching from kindergarten up?

Please let me know in the comments.

So…what should I post next? Tweet to tell me what to write:

Show me how to test product market fit!

or

How can I do lean startup in my friggin' huge company?

Discussion (4 comments)

  1. Nicole Capuana says:
    28.07.2015.

    I’ve been working with a high school (and sometimes middle school) entrepreneurial program teaching them how to do customer development with interviews, observations, and personas. Additionally, I teach the students how to create prototypes and run usability tests. What I do is a small slice of what the entire program covers. I am amazed at how much these students learn throughout the program as they partner with local startup companies and then ultimately create their own startup concept. I think the most impactful things they learn are all the soft skills – the communication, the listening, design thinking. The change in the students confidence is remarkable by the end of the class. These students are heading out in the world so much better positioned for anything that they do. There needs to be more of these types of programs in our schools. Steve Blank wrote about the programI help with here: http://steveblank.com/2014/03/12/beyond-the-lemonade-stand-how-to-teach-high-school-students-lean-startups/

  2. Donald Schabel says:
    30.07.2015.

    Immensely awesome post Tristan. Every paragraph is gold.

    As to your final question, what should we be teaching kids? Maybe how to learn from failure (or better said disappointments; or how to improve from shortcomings).

    Just the school educational paradigm based on grades and levels lends to the following type of attitude– I didn’t get an A, I’m not good enough/I’m stupid, I’ll never be able to do x,y,z– which is the opposite of the entrepreneurial mindset.

    1. Tristan says:
      30.07.2015.

      Learning from failure, I like that idea a lot.

      I also like the idea of changing the definition of failure. When we say an experiment failed, we often mean that “our hypothesis was incorrect and it’s back to the drawing board.”

      Instead, it should mean, “our experiment did not produce the desired data.”

      Invalidating a hypothesis is a success and we should celebrate it!

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