I’ve talked before about how to ask for help. How you ask is important for lots of reasons. It lets the other person know what problem you’re trying to solve. It lets them know what didn’t work so they don’t suggest that. It shows that you’ve put in some effort and you’re not just looking for someone to do the work for you.
But just as important as how to ask is when to ask. And the answer, like always, is “It depends”. The easy answer is that you should ask as soon as it becomes apparent that it will cost more to figure it out yourself than it would to get help. Simple, right?
Not really. Because you can’t know either side of the equation. You might have an epiphany in the next 10 seconds, or it might take 3 more days of digging. And you can’t know what the cost is. You might be able to figure out the direct cost, approximated by the hourly rate of the person helping you and the time they spend helping you, but what about the indirect cost? They were doing something important, so that got delayed. They were possibly interrupted, so that cost additional time. All sorts of costs to consider.
On the other hand, think of the benefits. A 2 sentence answer at the right time can save you days of exploring and investigating. Getting done days sooner adds customer value itself, and that time lets you add even more value. So how do you balance it?
One way is to look back. If you’ve spent a day making no progress what’s the likelihood that you will have a breakthrough in the next hour? You know yourself best, but that likelihood is probably pretty low. So ask.
Another way is to look forward. If the destination is across territory that is uncharted (to you) and there are people who’ve already explored it, that might be a good time to ask for help. Or at least ask for a map. And if there isn’t one, make it for the next person.
Finally, be honest with yourself. Don’t let pride or fear keep you from asking. In many cases they are flip sides of the same coin. Everyone has things they don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That’s one of the ways we learn. It doesn’t mean you failed, aren’t capable, or don’t care. It’s about doing the most valuable thing for the team and the customer.
And there’s one thing you can be sure of. There was a time when the person helping you didn’t know the answer either.