“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think”.
This quote from Socrates, articulated over 2,000 years ago, sits at the heart of the teaching method he created, the Socratic Method. This debate driven approach to challenging ideas and finding common ground is as valid today in the context of the work of the strategist as it was in the classical age.
Nothing that Socrates wrote exists today. Everything we know about him is through the work of other classical writers and philosophers, particularly Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes. Despite this, he is credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. Beyond that, the Socratic Method he is said to have invented is an approach that is used in modern scientific method as well as forming a defining element of the American legal education.
The central technique of the Socratic Method is to test, scrutinize or cross-examine an idea. In effect, it is a negative approach since it is designed to disprove an idea through probing questions rather than put forward an alternative idea.
It begins with a hypothesis, an idea that one participant puts forward. It is then the role of the other participants to challenge that hypothesis, to poke holes in the idea, to find reasons why it doesn’t work. The purpose of the method, and this is important, is not necessarily to eliminate the hypothesis, but rather to refine and improve upon it. By arguing and cross-examining the original hypothesis, we end up with a stronger, more defensible and stress tested idea.
Why is this method particularly well suited for developing digital strategy? We have previously discussed the concept of hypothesis driven strategy. The Socratic Method certainly build on that idea, challenging it vigorously to arrive at the best possible strategy given the information we have. This works well in our work since, as we’ve also previously asserted, digital marketing is subjective enough that people can arrive at two different solutions to a problem that are the opposite of each other, and both can be right. The Socratic Method helps us arrive at a solution that is more right.
This challenging method, driven as it is by a cross-examination based technique can also be seen as unnecessarily argumentative. This is not something to worry about too much though. As we’ve previously discussed, there is a virtue to being ‘difficult‘ in your role as a strategist. You owe it to the team to challenge ideas in order to refine them. But doing so constructively needs a particular approach. For insight into that approach, we can look to another quote attributed to Socrates. As he reportedly said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing”. The implication is clear. When challenging the hypothesis put forward by your team, it is important to begin with the idea that you don’t have a better answer. That way your colleagues don’t feel like you’re trying to push a specific agenda. Rather, they understand that all you’re trying to do is refine their idea.
The Socratic Method has formed the foundation of so much progress. It is a way of arriving at the truth. It is a technique for achieving a better solution. It is a core method in developing digital strategy. But it needs an open mind. As Socrates reportedly said, “wisdom begins in wonder”.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.