Ask vs. Tell
As product managers and team leaders, we’re often in situations where we need to help our team make a decision. This is particularly difficult in cross-functional team situations, where the product manager or team leader does not have “positional authority” — the other people on the team don’t report to the PM or to the team leader. The question that we face in these situations is, “What’s the best way to help our team get to the decision?”
One framework that I have found helpful in these situations is Ask vs. Tell. When we’re helping our team get to a decision, we can operate at either end of the Ask vs. Tell spectrum. On the “Ask” side of the spectrum, we’re asking the team for their input and we want to achieve a high level of consensus. “What do you think we should do?” On the “Tell” side, we’re essentially making the decision and informing the team of what our decision is. “We will do this.”
The Ask end of the spectrum is a bottom-up, inquisitive, consensus-style approach. The Tell end of the spectrum is a top-down, decisive, command-style approach.
Neither approach is good for every situation. If you over-use the Ask approach, you may be perceived as indecisive or overly cautious. If you over-use the Tell approach, you may be perceived as too directive, untrusting, and micro-managerial. And if you lack formal authority, you may also be perceived as over-extending your influence.
So when should you Ask, and when should you Tell? There are two components to knowing when you should Ask v. Tell:
Your first consideration for Ask vs. Tell is the situation of the decision.
- How much time do you have?
- What are the stakes?
- How much uncertainty is there in the outcome?
If you have more time to make the decision, you have the opportunity to Ask. If time is short, you may be forced to Tell. Imagine if you only have seconds to make a decision — you don’t have time for Ask.
If the stakes are high or the uncertainty is high, you should Ask in order to improve the actual decision. By Asking your team, you can overcome your biases, see around your blind spots, and expand the available set of information and ideas.
If the stakes are low and the uncertainty is low, you should just make the call and Tell your team. You don’t want to waste your team’s time by opening up every decision to discussion and input. Otherwise, you may be perceived as being indecisive or overly cautious.
Your second consideration for Ask vs. Tell should be the audience for this decision.
- What is the audience’s existing perspective on this topic or decision?
- How much buy-in will be required from your audience?
If your audience is already skeptical about this topic or decision, you should Ask. People who are skeptical don’t want to be told; they want their concerns and objections to be heard. You will be much more effective with persuading your skeptical audience if you listen to their perspective and address their concerns. If your audience is already receptive, you can Tell in order to save time and move quickly to a decision.
If you need buy-in from your audience around the decision, you should Ask. You generally require buy-in from your audience when your team is the one primarily impacted by the decision — when they are the ones who will need to implement the decision, or change their behavior.
The reason why you want to Ask your team is because people feel motivated when they have autonomy and feel like they are making their own decisions. Hence, when you need buy-in, Ask people questions that help them to reach their decision. If you revert to Tell in these situations, at best you get reluctant compliance (wait-and-see, hope it fails, passive aggressive behavior). At worst you get outright non-compliance (ignore this decision, rebel against it).
Every day, product managers and team leaders must help their teams make decisions. The question that we face in these situations is, “What’s the best way to help our team get to the decision?”
We can use the Ask vs. Tell framework in order to decide the best approach to use to get to a decision. The Ask end of the spectrum is a bottom-up, inquisitive, consensus-style approach. The Tell end of the spectrum is a top-down, decisive, command-style approach. Certain decisions lend themselves more to Ask, others more to Tell. Use Ask too often or in the wrong situation, and you may be perceived as indecisive. Use Tell too much or in the wrong situation, and you may be perceived as micro-managing.
You can consider two factors when deciding to use Ask vs. Tell:
- Situation. How much time do you have? How high are the stakes? How much uncertainty is there?
- Audience: How skeptical is your audience? How much buy-in do you need?
In general, you Ask when:
- You have time AND the stakes are high OR uncertainty is high.
- Your audience is skeptical OR you need their buy-in.
You Tell when:
- Time is short OR (the stakes are low AND uncertainty is low).
- Your audience is receptive AND you don’t need much buy-in from them.
More and more these days, we’re leading highly independent thinkers, who may often be skeptical of “authority.” So more often than not, we will need to Ask rather than Tell. If you see people becoming resistant to how you’re handling the decision process, ask yourself if you’re ending up too much on the Tell side of the spectrum.
However, don’t assume that Ask is always the right way to go. Sometimes you have to Tell — it’s the right thing to do to help the team move quickly, and you have the competence and credibility to back it up. Sometimes your team needs you to be more on the assertive, Tell side of the spectrum.
This may especially be true with the passage of time. At the beginning of the decision process, you have more time and can start with Ask. As time runs out, you may be forced to move to Tell. “We’ve been discussing this for a while, but time is running out and I need to make a call now on behalf of our team.”
The next time you need to help your team reach a decision, think through the Ask vs. Tell framework. It is the most efficient and effective way for you to lead your team to a decision.
Thank you to Jeff Seibert, who introduced a version of Ask vs. Tell to the Twitter PM team at a training session in 2015. I’ve evolved this framework and use it often since first hearing about it from Jeff back in the day.