Mentors 1/18: Be Socratic

Since today is the first day of the new Techstars Boulder program, I figured that it’s time to get rolling Deconstructing The Techstars Mentor Manifesto.

My goal with this series of posts is not to get the detail right, but to flesh things out and get your feedback. So please comment on anything and challenge everything to help me get it better.

First up (of the 18 items) is “Be Socratic.”

If you think “be socratic” means “ask questions”, you are partially correct. When David Cohen was crafting the mentor manifesto, it was obvious to start with “be socratic” since such a key part of the Techstars mentor process is to ask questions. But it’s not just the act of asking questions, it’s how you ask questions, what you try to accomplish with the questions, and what your responses to the answers are.

The “how” is important. As a mentor, it’s easy to establish a 1-up / 1-down relationship with the entrepreneurs you are talking to. In most cases, you start that way, especially with first time entrepreneurs. However, your goal should be to create a peer relationship, where the mentee learns from the mentor and the mentor learns from the mentee. As a result, tone matters. A lot.

The cliche “there are no stupid questions” applies. Body language matters. If you – as the mentor – don’t understand something, ask a question. You don’t have to show the mentee that you are smarter than her. You don’t have to establish your credibility – you already have it.

While one of your goals with these questions is to learn more about the company and the problem you are exploring, recognize that if your engagement with the mentee is a one-way Q&A session with no clear goal, your mentee will only be getting part of the value out of the experience. Use your questions to guide the discussion, presumably toward testing hypotheses you might be developing in real time. Be explicit about these hypotheses as you are testing them and try to show your thought process through the questioning. This can be subtle, where you just guide things along, or it can be explicit, where you state your hypothesis and then start asking questions.

Your goal should not be to come up with the answer and state it, but rather to help the mentee reach the answer or a set of new hypotheses she can test. This is a collaborative process, especially if you are trying to develop a peer relationship. It won’t happen comfortably in your first interaction, but after a lot of time together you’ll find you are learning from each other during the process and reaching a better set of answers, or at least new hypotheses to test.

In the same way that how you ask the question matters, how you respond to the answers matters just as much. The corollary to “there are no stupid questions” is “there are no stupid answers” and it’s just as important to realize that. For most people, answering questions in real time, especially when you are getting them from lots of different directions (as in multiple mentors over a short period of time) can be intimidating. When a person hasn’t thought deeply about the answer to a question, or hears a new question for the first time, the answer often doesn’t really address the question.

When this happens, just ask “Why?” If you’ve never heard of 5 Whys it’s one of the most brilliant things I ever learned about getting to the root cause of any issue. The example in Wikipedia is wonderful, since it reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

What matters here is the root cause. And that’s what you are trying to get to with your questions. So don’t dismiss the first answer – keep digging. And use the third answer to set up a few hypotheses because at this point you are actually getting into the meat of the discussion.

The goal is not to end up with the definitive answer to the questions. Rather, you are trying to use the questions to set up a new set of hypotheses to go test. You are at the beginning of a long arc of inquisition – use being socratic as a continuous process to try to find answers.