Socrates never claimed to be an expert in anything; instead he claimed to be just a man who was trying to understand the world around him. When he encountered someone making a bold claim he would respond with a simple question — he wanted to reduce their element to its plainest form. This method of distilling complex thought into the simplest form has become known as the Socratic method. At its core, its really just a form of conversation where two people work together to arrive at the truth. He understood that it was not enough to have his students memorize facts about the world, instead he led them to arrive at the the truth by having his students question and distill complex problems.
Law schools are noted for their use of the Socratic method. Countless Hollywood movies have portrayed first year law students terrified of the professor calling their name, and this vision of Socratic dialogue as a tool for inquisition and public humiliation has pervaded popular thought.
This negative perception of Socratic reasoning seems to have taken hold in popular culture. People are often uncomfortable with extended questioning of the merits of their decisions. The lizard brain kicks in, we become defensive. We become afraid, vanity inhibits our rationality. Admitting the faults in our reasoning is hard to do when we're not accustomed to it — we are attached to our ideas precisely because they are our ideas.
Stop for a moment, I want you to be completely honest with yourself. Answer one question— are you transparent with your coworkers? Your employees? Your customers?
If you aren’t, why is that? Many excuses come to mind, I’m sure, but are they really valid? The reality is this: if you pushed to find the purpose and truth of things you would probably do better work. It’s as simple as that.
Creating an honest and open culture is hard to do, but the benefits are pretty clear. Organizations that foster an atmosphere where people can engage in a critique of their project/idea/design/etc. without feeling that they are being personally critiqued are ones that succeed. Some of the most successful organizations in the world are ones that have embraced open cultures: Bridgewater Associates, Google, and Qualtrics are just a few examples.
Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater, is well known for building the largest hedge fund in the world; he’s also regarded for his ebook, Principles. In it he shares his life and business management tactics. One of the most striking lessons from his book is from the section on truth — his most fundamental principle:
I learned that there is nothing to fear from truth. While some truths can be scary—for example, finding out that you have a deadly disease—knowing them allows us to deal with them better. Being truthful, and letting others be completely truthful, allows me and others to fully explore our thoughts and exposes us to the feedback that is essential for our learning.
Bridgewater has gone to great lengths to ensure transparency at all levels of the firm, notably they record all meetings and allow any employee to go back and watch what occurred. Likewise, Qualtrics allows all employees to see what every other employee is working on and their progress on that project (they can even watch all the security footage if they cared too). When a professor of mine took our class to visit Google’s NYC HQ we all had to sign a NDA at the door, because Googlers have no qualms about dragging a whiteboard into the middle of a hall and asking random bypassers to critique their project.
As Ryan Holiday pointed out in his new book, Growth Hacker Marketing, the Socratic method is quite effective for applying the Lean Startup’s ‘Product Market Fit’. In the book Holiday says, “We must simply and repeatedly question every assumption. Who is this product for? Why would they use it? Why do I use it?” In order to build an amazing product you need to question yourself and question your customers.You need to determine what the needs of the market are.
There’s an ego component when you deploy the Socratic method. If you’re continually questioning it can offend people, which is why you have to question the process — not the person. Be cognizant of this, especially the first few times you deploy this technique.
Open cultures fight off mediocrity, because when everyone is honest about their goals and progress they become much more accountable. The Socratic method is just one way to build an open culture. By having frank discussions where you are not afraid to drill into your organization's core tenants you set a strong precedent for honesty and openness.
So, how do you actually use the Socratic method?
Socrates’ approach — a cycle of continual questioning — would expose contradictions that falsified the original assumption. He always began by having the person he engaged with clarify their thoughts.
He wanted his students to dig beneath the surface of their ideas, and value the process of developing questions. Start off with questions such as:
‘Why do you say that?’, ‘Could you explain further?’
You want to drill down to the simplest, purest assumptions. If these do not hold up to logic than they cannot lay the foundation for the rest of your argument.
You want to drill down into the evidence for their argument. At this stage it is necessary to understand the basis for their beliefs:
‘Why do you say that?’, ‘What led you to this assumption?’
Try to pull out alternative viewpoints, get inside the mind of your consumer (or better yet someone who you think would never buy your product or service):
‘Is there another way to see this?’, ‘How can we counter this argument?’
Use the line of questioning to arrive at the implications of your assumptions. Try to determine what would happen if you changed the variables around your idea:
‘What would be the result if _____ happened?’, ‘How does ____ affect ____?’
Finally, question yourself. Question the questions you've asked. Question your motives for asking those questions. Question your biases:
‘Which of the questions I asked were most useful?’, ‘Which were the hardest to answer?’, ‘Why do you think I asked you that question?’, ‘Was there anything I should have asked but didn’t?’
You don't have to take a huge leap to start down the road towards a more open and honest culture. While working on the Sethternship™, we were asked to blog every night. It was a simple thing, but the act of forcing us to reflect on our day and recount what we accomplished was at the same time empowering and frightening. The blog gave us a place to own our failures and successes, to vent, to share. What is stopping you from creating an internal company blog right now? Not one to share or promote to the world, but one to let your team share with each other.