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I wanted to take a minute to address David Espina's question:

I am trying to understand the notion of questions that avoid opinions and / or discussions. On one hand, we want questions with more depth but we discourage questions that may not have "an answer." This is inconsistent. Questions that are simple have answers. Questions that are complex have schools of thought, induced theoretical constructs, uncertainty, opinions, anecdotal observations, and maybe some studies that show a degree of deduced efficacy. The latter is far more interesting. For the former, pick up a PM 101 book.

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    To say that complex questions don't have answers is to completely ignore all fields of science. "What are people made of?" doesn't have a simple answer because it is, in retrospect, a bad question. It's about being specific enough to have a good, answerable question, just like science. – Ben Brocka Jun 19 '12 at 11:05
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    Ben, science sometimes finds answers, other times it accepts an answer. But science is the process of induction as well as deduction. Induction is where we learn, deduction is where we confirm. It is the process of induction that triggered my question to jmort253. We encounter issues where a solution has not started or is just in its infancy stages. Theories and schools of thought are just being developed. This is what we face in business and on projects many many times, where there is not really an answer, just possibilities maybe based on some known accepted theory(ies). – David Espina Jun 19 '12 at 11:55
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    And, sometimes the initial question is broad and abstract, which then leads to more specific and tactical questions upon which testable hypotheses can be developed. It is a process of decomposing the level of abstraction. What people are made of was a great starter question for early humans. Now we get to study specific diseases. We wouldn't be here if that first question did not get asked. – David Espina Jun 19 '12 at 11:59
  • Which PM 101 book? There are lots of different ones ;) – Pawel Brodzinski Jun 26 '12 at 15:05
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I'm really glad David asked this question because he highlights a very important point: The subjective questions are oftentimes the most important and the ones that involve the most expertise and specialized knowledge.

"Questions that are complex have schools of thought"

I agree completely! But, it's important to realize that these questions generally do have answers. Maybe there is more than one answer, and that's okay. But there likely isn't an infinite amount of answers that can be correct, where everyone can get their participation trophy for posting a link to their favorite PM tool.

Imagine a question where each person answering posts his or her "gut feeling opinion" on how to deal with a rogue employee. The question has very little background information about the specific problem, background information that -- if provided -- may very well affect the outcome of the answers or even determine how many conflicting answers there are.

When there is more information, when the scope of the problem is clearly defined by the asker, the quality of the answers is significantly higher than on overly broad questions where there's room for speculation, purely because of omitted details.

The main distinction that we're looking for in great questions is that they should be detailed and complex enough to where not everyone can answer them. They should be detailed enough to produce great answers. Great questions produce great answers.

Thus, when we say real questions have answers, what we really mean is that a person doing research on topic A, who runs across question X, shouldn't leave our site feeling even more confused than before he or she landed on our site. If the topic is complex, then we need to ensure that the people we're trying to help -- with their lack of expertise and domain knowledge -- can quickly and easily tell the difference between which answer will solve the problem and which one might get him or her fired ;)

"Questions that are complex have ... opinions"

What David says here is so true! The most complex PM problems we have here on PMSE are generally solved by others offering their opinions... expert opinions.

If anyone can answer the question with his or her opinion, then the question obviously isn't a good fit, but if the problem requires specialized knowledge based on experiences, studies, theoretical observations, or opinions where a certain degree of expertise is required, then I wholeheartedly believe we should embrace those questions with open arms.

So, how do we tell what the best answers are when there are many diverging opinions on a question? How do we tell the difference between the expert information based on those theoretical constructs and anecdotal observations? How do we achieve this Q&A Zen?

One way is to help the asker edit the question so that it's crystal clear about what he/she is asking. This helps filter out the opinions that really don't matter, the opinions that don't truly address the problem or the question. Edits help uncover the question at it's core and bring it into focus so our community rallies around solving the problem at hand.

Another way we can achieve this is by holding our peers accountable for information they post by asking for supporting references or for that person to explain why he or she thinks his or her answer is correct. This helps those with less experience -- the people searching for answers -- determine what really will solve the problem. We shouldn't fear challenging people, but we should take care not to degrade into discussion at the same time.

Finally, here is the description of the "Not Constructive" close reason:

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or specific expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, see the FAQ for guidance.

If the question is so theoretical or abstract to where there are 10 answers that are all completely different and contradictory, with no supporting evidence to back them, then these questions will likely lead to debate, arguments, or extended discussion. As a person searching for an answer to a problem, you may find yourself leaving the site with more questions than you came with. This isn't bad, it's just not the type of material the StackExchange engine is specifically suited for because it doesn't solve a real problem.

In summary, this doesn't mean we don't want subjectivity or really interesting problems, we just need to make sure there is enough specific information so that the question can be reasonably answered. A visitor to the site should be able to read a question and then tell from upvotes and accepts which answers are the best and which answer solved the asker's problem. Questions that degrade into discussion lose focus on the answers, and at that point it's not always clear what the solution is.

I admit it's not easy to tell which questions are good and which questions aren't. Sometimes I can just tell by looking at them. Sometimes I can edit the question and get rid of that feeling that something just isn't right about it and then not give it a second thought. Sometimes I've found myself at a complete loss and have had to ask others for help to determine if the question could be saved. Most recently, I've worked with some of our community members in making some edits to some recent questions. We've increased our average edits, and this participation has already helped improve the quality of questions and answers.

Finally, we must strive to find a balance between questions that are too broad and generic and too abstract and theoretical, and learn to tell the difference between the ones that can be edited to fit the parameters of our site and those that cannot. As more of us continue to participate in meta and determine exactly where these boundaries are, I'm confident our site will continue to grow, both in quality as well as quantity!

David, if you or anyone else has any more specific questions about problems we're facing on PMSE, this is definitely the place to ask, and I encourage you to continue to participate in the site's governance and helping to solve our community issues! :)

  • Excellent! I see where you are headed now. – David Espina Jun 19 '12 at 11:56
  • Hi @DavidEspina. Do you feel that you're now more aware of what a "not constructive" question might look like, as well as the borderline "not a real question" ones where probing the question-asker for more details through comments could turn a poorly written StackExchange question into a great specimen? Does this also help you more easily picture how some "creative edits" could also help keep a question within the boundaries? Are these things you think you could commit to as one of our top contributors? – jmort253 Jun 20 '12 at 2:03
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    I think so and I'll definitely try! – David Espina Jun 21 '12 at 15:50
  • @DavidEspina - Here is a related discussion you may be interested in: meta.pm.stackexchange.com/a/338/34 I really feel like we're getting somewhere! :) – jmort253 Jun 26 '12 at 6:54

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