The Exam Question: Home Ownership

He likes to ask his teams ‘What is the Exam Question?‘.

Muktesh Ghatak was my Project Manager on a Finance Transformation project in 2008 while I was at IBM Global Business Services.

When team meetings and other conversations would get mired in confusion and ambiguity he would ask us ‘What is the Exam Question?’.

It was a great question. Great at pulling you back from the detail. Great for re-orientating your perspective. Great at reminding you to get back to why you are here in the first place.

When you are stuck in the middle of it. When it is too confusing and ambiguous, remind yourself what you are trying to do.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Why are you here?

Where are you trying to get to?

That is the exam question. A question specific to the current situation and context.

Now keep that in mind and as I dive headfirst into a political and generational minefield.

The ABC Four Corners program that aired on Monday 2nd May 2016 was titled “Home Truths: What Happened to the Great Australian Dream?“.

“On the eve of the Federal Budget, Four Corners reports on the white hot issues of housing affordability and negative gearing and the generation left wondering if they will ever own their own home.”

By Ben Knight, Klaus Toft and Mary Fallon

The idea of owning your own home looms large in the public psyche.

There is a message broadcast that we must all aspire to own our own home and there is a cultural pressure to do so. This is a fundamental assumption within these some societies. It has become part of the culture. You can identify as a homeowner, and if you are not then you aspire to be one.

At the same time, growth in property prices has encouraged more people to become property investors. It is an asset that is easy to understand. Prices are rising and everyone wants to be in on the action.


There are the two broad camps.

  1. You are either in the ‘I want to own my own home’ camp, and you either do own or aspire to own, or
  2. You are in the ‘I want to have a property portfolio’ camp aiming to grow your wealth or fund your retirement. And you here you own at least one property, whether you live in that one or not.

Both these camps have different goals and by definition of where they sit, they have different perspectives on what is important.

The conflict with each other too. More so if the balance swings too far in either direction.

* This reminds me of the following essay by Donella Meadows “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System“. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in unintended consequences. 


It is in this context that as I watched the episode I became acutely aware of my own emotions and how I was reacting to the reporting.

My emotions were attached to the idea that we must own the home we live in. They conflicted with my more reasoned self that empathized with governments who need to drive investment in housing stock, and the important role property investors fill in that process. And of course appreciating that if I was in that boat, I would feel like they did about any proposed change that results in a loss to me.

But I couldn’t work out what I thought and believed to be true. Where do I sit on this topic as I consider all each stakeholder and how I would feel if I was them and in their position?

I could see the merits of each side of the argument if I pictured myself in either camp.

I thought the program did I good job of discussing the subject and showing multiple views. Yet I was confused.

Did everyone on the program believe they were answering the same question?

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In that way the program missed a great opportunity. It failed to ask itself and therefore the wider Australian public ‘What is the Exam Question?‘.

What is the question itself.

What is more important?

  • That we all own our home?
  • That there is sufficient housing stock whether it be rented or owned?
  • Or something in between?

If you don’t know what question is being asked then how could you know whether your answer is correct?

“Questions are places in your mind where answers fit,” he said. “If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off.”

Clayton Christensen –  from  A Conversation with Innovation Guru Clayton Christensen

My point is that the quality of the question being asked is more important in than the answer. That is what asking yourself ‘What is the exam question‘ does. It forces you to reflect on the Question itself. 

I wish the program has focused more on what the question itself should be. In the absence of a good question, we create our own and answer that one. We answer the easier question.

“This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.”
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

A good question seeks out a significant leverage point in the system. You can fiddle around the edges and push and pull the system where you think it needs to go. But the goal of the system itself is a big leverage point.

Change the goal, change the system.

Because if you do truly believe every citizen should have the opportunity to buy their own home, then the system should be designed with that goal in mind. The possible answers are different.

But if you don’t believe that then you are closer to the belief that property is just another asset class, like shares on the stock market, and that the market will take care of itself. You are an investor and your goal is not home ownership, but capital growth or cashflow. That is a different system. That is a different set of answers.

What exam questions could you have asked recently? 

Let me know in the comments below.

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