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When getting a managers or colleagues attention for a question, how should I reply when they say "Is it quick"?

I'm not sure what qualifies as "quick"? 10 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes? While my question may be easy, I don't know how long it may take them to answer. This is especially true for questions like "How do I do X?" They could tell me where to find documentation in 1 sentence or may need to sit down for 15 minutes to explain something.

How should I respond when someone says "is it quick?" when they see I want to have a word with them?

  • 19
    "Quick" to me is something I can answer in some sentences without having to spend a lot of time looking at something to figure out the problem or finding examples and material and actually sit down and explain something in detail. So I would say, between 1 and 3 minutes. (There is never anything that takes 5 in my experience. It's <1, 3, 10 or an hour and above.) – skymningen Aug 22 '17 at 9:01
  • 22
    This reaction is a signal to you that that particular instant isn't the best time for a question. Except for the most trivial of questions, you don't actually know, in advance, whether the question you have will be quick. After all, you're asking because you don't know something and that "something" may be more complex than you or your colleague expects. Just pick a better time to ask-- unless it truly is something with a trivial response like "yes" or "no", but in that case you could have just asked the question outright. – teego1967 Aug 22 '17 at 10:51
  • 6
    I think based on your uncertainty about whether it would be quick, the answer is that it wouldn't. The speaker expects you to only ask a question if you are sure the answer couldn't possibly be so nuanced as to take up more than a moment's time. – Darren Ringer Aug 22 '17 at 13:59
  • 1
    This is another way of saying "I am busy right now". – Mister Positive Aug 22 '17 at 14:53
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    A "quick" question is something like "has that cancelled meeting been rearranged yet?" Anything that requires an unknown amount of technical explanation isn't likely to be "quick." – alephzero Aug 22 '17 at 21:47
127

You're looking at this all wrong. When someone asks you whether the question you have is "quick" or "small" or what have you, what they really want you to do is tell them what it's about or how much of their time you'll need. Whatever you do, please don't respond with a simple Yes or No, that's not what they're after. What you should do is:

  • estimate how much time of theirs you'll need
  • explain what your question is and why or on what you need their input

You want to do both of these but in practice you'll usually only be able to answer the latter. Estimating the time required will become easier with practice. Most routine and simple questions are a matter of 5-15 minutes and you can accurately predict them as such. If you're after a knowledge transfer, getting input on a project or discussing an important issue then you're looking at more than that and you should really be sending a meeting request in most cases. But that sort of depends on the culture.

But you should always be able to boil down your question into a single sentence or summary. And that lets the other party estimate how long something will take and where that question fits in their priorities.

But here's the thing: you should always do this from the start! There is nothing quite as pointless as an email saying "Can I ask you something?". It means I have to write back to you to ask what your question is about. This isn't grade school where you have to put up your finger to get the teacher's attention. In business communication you want to get to the point quickly and clearly. Since we're in the days of Instant Messaging, it's somewhat common for people on IM to ask "Do you have a moment?" but even then it's much preferred to actually say what you need someone for: "Do you have moment for a question on collating the TPS reports?"

Imagine the following IM exchange:

  • Hey X, do you have a moment?

  • I'm a bit swamped, what do you need?

  • I wanted to ask you about the TPS reports.

  • Can we do that later? I'm on a bit of a deadline.

  • Sure, I'll contact you tomorrow morning.

  • Hey X, is now a good time?

  • Sure, go ahead.

  • In the TPS report for March I noticed [a thing], what should we do with that?

  • Oh, you should actually ask Y about that.

You're going back and forth six times and spending most of your time on communication overhead. If you had asked your actual question from the start you'd already have known to contact Y instead. If a similar conversation took place over e-mail it could take even longer.

Business communication is (...or should be) all about fast and concise communication. You should strive to avoid getting a response like this in the future by improving the way you communicate. Don't "ask if you can ask", that's a level of formality most workplaces go without.

One addendum: verbal communication is a bit different in that it's common to get someone's attention with a variation on "Can I bother you for a moment?" or "If I'm not interrupting, can I ask you a question?". Ignore the fact that you're already bothering, interrupting and asking; that's just one of the quirks of polite conversation. You'll still get better results if you summarise what your question is about but here the context and who you're talking to typically determine how you best get someone's attention. As an example it's common for people who work closely together to just say "Hey, do you have a moment?" and then wait for the colleague to finish what he's doing before asking your actual question.

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    This is something that pains me greatly. I get dozens of Slack messages "Hi Qwerky" or "Do you have a minute" or "I have a question". If only they would simply ask the question. – Qwerky Aug 22 '17 at 14:23
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    @Qwerky Ugh... I feel you. I'm on IM all day at work, and I can't stand. "Hey Chris. I have a quick question," then radio silence until I respond. If it's quick, just get it over with. It stopped being quick when you needed me to respond. "Hey Chris, I have a quick question. What's the status on...?" Done ranting, but this is a huge peeve of mine. – Chris Schneider Aug 22 '17 at 15:54
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    @Qwerky Note that in a non face to face setting, something like 'Can I ask you something' does establish whether you are currently responsive, otherwise the question can be redirected without creating a distraction for you. But in a face to face setup, this is indeed fully inefficient. -- If responsiveness is good and you have a fixed team, you can of course try to introduce directly asking as a best practice. – Dennis Jaheruddin Aug 22 '17 at 16:06
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    @ChrisSchneider I eventually just stopped responding to those sorts of openers. If you just want to chat, come visit. If you're using IM to reach me, I assume you need me to do/answer something, and I expect you to get the the point immediately. Those who don't are wasting my time, so I have no qualms wasting theirs in return, by ignoring them until they actually ask something. They learn in the end. – CactusCake Aug 22 '17 at 17:15
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    Agreed, especially on the IM part. I have some colleagues that rattle down quite a few messages until they get to the point "Hi" ...other is typing... "How are you?" ...other is typing... "I have a question" ...other is typing... "Do you have a minute?" ...other is typing... "I only have a small question". You answer "go ahead", then you get the actual question. The question asker just already wasted more than the minute they're asking for. Get to the point! But maybe I'm just too German for these pleasantries. – CodeMonkey Aug 23 '17 at 11:37
18

In my experience, quick usually means "Can I answer before the meeting I have scheduled in X minutes?" So if it is ten minutes to the hour or half hour (when most meetings start, quick is ten minutes, If it is 10:57 quick is 3 minutes or less.

Examples of things that are not quick:

  • Discussions about how to do something that may involve research
  • HR problems
  • Troubleshooting code where you don't see the problem after working on it for awhile
  • Things where the answer is not going to be to your liking.
  • Things where the answer is likely to be complicated

Examples of things that are quick:

  • Notifying of an immediate issue without trying to solve it (Just wanted to let you know the production server is down,. I am off to fix it right now.)
  • Where is... (when the person is very likely to know off the top of his or her head)
  • Can you request permissions for me to ... (where the request must come from a supervisor)
  • Can I take off this afternoon?

When something is not quick, I usually say something like , "I need to talk to you about ..., when would be a good time to schedule?" This lets the person know the topic and they can decide for themselves if maybe it is something they should get to as soon as possible or not. It might even be important enough to reschedule that meeting in ten minutes, but it is usually the call of the person you are interrupting.

6

As you've discovered "quick" is a very subjective term in this context, different people will have different ideas about what they consider to be an acceptably "quick" request so to be honest unless you know the person well enough to know that this would fall under their definition of "quick" (and it's important that it's their's not yours) then the easist way is to respond with an idea of how long it will take and let them make the decision as to whether that fits e.g.

Should only take 5/10/15 mins if that's okay?

Obviously you can only do this if you have an idea of how long this will take, if you don't know then about all you can do is be up front about that say something like:

I'm not sure, it's a couple of questions about widget X?

So you're giving them some context about it and they are probably better placed then to know whether it's likely to be something they can deal with quickly or not.

One thing I would stress is to make sure that while courtesy is important you really don't want to end up taking ages explaining that it's quick or that you don't want to disturb them. Otherwise you risk making the whole thing be not "quick", an ex-coworker of mine would literally spend 10 minutes apologizing for disturbing me and saying how he knew how important my time was all to ask me a 30 second question and it was utterly infuriating!

5

If you have an idea on how much time it would take, just answer the question with "I think it should only take 5 minutes".

If you have no idea on how much time it will take, give a hint on what the question is and let the manager decide if he has the time for it.

If the question would end up taking too much time, you can always suggest coming back or scheduling a meeting to discuss it further.

5

While my question may be easy, I don't know how long it may take them to answer.

I think it depends on whether the question (not the answer) is quick.

If the statement consists of two sentences, one statement and one question, then it's a quick question to ask; for example:

The frobinator is broken again! Shall I order a new one?

Or ...

Sam' boss wants me to look at a customer support problem. Do you think I should do that immediately, or should I first finish that report which you asked me to write for you?

Or ...

I don't know how to do X. Do you have time to explain that, is there documentation for it somewhere, or...?

I reckon that, once they've heard the question, then they can decide whether and how they want to answer it immediately. The question they're asking is whether it will take you quite a while to even explain what the question is.

  • +1. "Quick question. Okay, so you know how the frobitz of the fuzzborf had new flippers since last year, and Chris modified the foobar to take care of the dingywhatsit when we ran into that issue about the gimigahoojit? Well, the hack we put in at that time never got reviewed by the network team, and now the new team lead ran into a different issue about the gorblefluster and we had to review all the code for florbitz, except it's written in Blub and the new policy from our CTO is that 'diversity is for personnel, not for codebases,' so we wanted to know whether you have any objections." – Wildcard Aug 23 '17 at 4:20
  • What is that comment an example of? – ChrisW Aug 24 '17 at 10:14
  • The sort of not-quick question that people (e.g. managers) guard against by asking if it's quick. If it requires a glossary and a history lesson to understand the question...it's not "quick." :) – Wildcard Aug 24 '17 at 10:17
  • Imagining myself as a manager, my reaction on reading it was to reply with a follow-up question: "Is it urgent?"; or a statement "That's not urgent, is it." -- meaning that I want to schedule it for later, and that I want to determine how much later. – ChrisW Aug 24 '17 at 10:30
1

Quick should be less than 2 minutes, or less than 15 minutes

There are 2 situations that I am often in, depending on this the definition of quick is set. If in doubt, go for the shorter one. Also check out my recommendation to mitigate the problem all together.

Situation 1. Infrequent contact

You have comparatively infrequent contact, and especially almost never ask trivial questions. If the other guy sees you coming, and, he knows that either you have something that is going to take a while or it is not too bad, then quick becomes 'it does not really mess up my daily schedule'. Hence an ESTIMATED time of 15 minutes (if it starts to grow as you go and projected time is raised above 30 mins, evaluate whether you want to continue or plan something instead).

Situation 2. Frequent contact/ Other

If you have more frequent contact, your question distribution is likely not centered around questions that take more than an hour. In that case, anything over 2 minutes can significantly disrupt the task that they are currently doing and hence 2 minutes is quick. (If you have too many 'little things' that is a different problem on which I will not elaborate here.)

If you do not have a working history together or the circumstances are different than usual, just stay safe and assume that quick means less than 2 minutes ESTIMATED time.

Resolution

If your question is quick, simply respond with something like this:

This should be quite quick, {one liner containing key question and context}

If your question is not quick, respond in line with:

It should be about 20 mins/I don't know/ No, but I need to get it out of the way before T, I want to ask about {one liner containing key question and context}


Recommendation: Preempt the question whether it is quick

This process is mostly inefficient for short questions (as a significant percentage of time that it takes to answer the question, gets spent on introduction instead). Therefore I trained myself to get in the habit of phrasing things as such:

Can I ask you a quick question? (For quick question)

Can I bother you for 20 minutes? (For questions with decent estimate)

I am stuck with a deadline, could you help me before lunch? (For urgent questions)

I have a question about X (If I don't know too much about the required time, or even whether this is the right person!)

In the last case they may of course still ask you whether it is a quick question. In that case you can reply with:

I am not sure, I want to know {X more detailed but still in 1 sentence}.

1

When I ask the "Is it quick?" question, I'm actually not looking for a time estimate*, but for a hint about whether I have to "switch context", i.e. whether I actually have to drop what I'm currently doing. Sometimes I cannot afford the invest needed to focus or refocus on certain topics, so I try to find out if it's a "soft" question, or e.g. a query for research, and the urgency involved.

*: because I expect to get hard questions (due to my role in the team), and people are not good at estimating the time needed for these anyways

0

While it's possible that the person asking the question knows it's quick, I think that's actually the uncommon case. It usually means either the question is something you could easily Google (or look up in workplace-private docs), or that the person being asked is some sort of domain expert in an area that's not properly documented.

For the more common case where you don't know if the question is quick, I think the most appropriate response is to say that you're not sure and provide a very quick summary of what it's about and make it clear that you'll respect their time (ask by email instead, ask someone else, go back to trying to find a solution on your own, etc.) if it's not something they can answer in a few seconds/minutes.

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