Ask the stupid questions
June 7, 2018, 6 min read
Everyone know the saying ''there is no such thing as a stupid question''. It is actually a fantastic expression, however maybe the stupid questions exist after all.
This is something that has baffled me for years. Why no one asks the stupid questions.
As mentioned in the opening there are so many opportunities to ask the right and important questions. To question the way of thinking, question the way of working and question the way of acting.
But asking those questions can be daunting. They are often directed towards your manager, the executive director or maybe even the board. And they must know what they are doing, right?
Well, yes. But again, they also might be doing what they are always doing, and they might actually value being challenged. I have experienced many types of leaders and while not all are open for discussions and ''stupid questions'' at all times, most are and they actually appreciate it.
Also, think for yourself. Do you actually want to work in a company where asking questions are not acknowledged and appreciated?
I recommend asking the following three stupid questions as often as possible:
- Why are we doing this?
- How can we do this smarter?
- What are we actually solving?
These three questions refer to three stages of any idea and innovation process. And I call them stupid questions, because essentially everyone should be able to answer these questions, but reality is, that often no one can.
Why are we doing this?
This question is probably the most important of them all. Always remember your why. If you can't answer this question, you should simply stop what you are doing and do something else.
The why does not refer to the problem you are trying to solve, but it refers to why you want to solve the problem. If the problem is not well defined, you will have a hard time coming up with a solution to solve it. But if you don't even know why you want to solve it, it's a completely lost battle.
For many it can be difficult to find their why, but there are techniques for that, and the 5 Whys is a great tool for getting closer to your why. We'll talk more about that in the next part of the book.
It is also important that everyone agrees on the why. Solving a problem with different perspectives on why are a safe way to end with a failing product or service.
How can we do this smarter?
This question refers to the process. It is about the how. How you do things and how you learn more.
Often companies choose a framework or a set of tools that they rely on, but they do not work in all cases. Sometimes you need to update your toolbox or even get a completely new one.
It is important to discuss whether you are simply following well known processes, because that is what you know of, or if you are following them because they are best suited for your challenge.
If you ask questions on how to do this smarter, differently or even cheaper, then you are opening up for the creativity. You enable the possibility of changing existing processes, optimizing work flows or creating a better journey following your why.
What are we actually solving?
This is another really tough question to ask. Imagine your team has spent 6-18 months coming up with a solution to a problem, and then potentially ruin all the work with this simple question.
The what refers to the solution you have brought to life. Does that really solve your problem and does it match up with your why? The longer you wait until asking this question, the harder it will become.
In fact that is common for all of the above questions. The longer you wait to ask them, the more difficult it will be to actually ask.
And the best leaders know that. They acknowledge and appreciate the employees asking the questions and challenging their beliefs. So much that Steve Jobs promoted Donna Dubinsky for standing up and disagreeing with him.
The anecdote is told by Adam Grant in his book ''Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World'' and highlights that Donna's courage to actually stand up and disagree earned her the right to present a counter-proposal. A proposal that were then accepted and Donna got promoted for her eagerness to stand up for her beliefs.
The time factor involved in asking questions is very important. The longer a project is running, the longer people involved will care and treat the project as their own. So if you have the chance to ask these questions before that strong connection to the project has been developed, you have a way better chance of a reasonable and constructive response.
If you wait until the project is finished to ask the questions, people involved will be annoyed that you didn't ask those questions earlier. And that might actually end up in a situation where no one ends up asking the most important questions of why on earth they have been building such a solution.
Stupid questions are challenging
I always ask the stupid questions. And I always receive the least concrete answers. That's how my consulting works. I ask the questions that others don't. And I make sure to do so, until the business leaders have a clear idea of why they are doing what they are doing.
There is a challenging nature connected with the stupid questions, and it is so much easier for me as an external consultant to ask those questions, than it is for employees. I completely acknowledge that, but I also want to point out that it is just a mental barrier. It is all about navigating the political games.
This might seem like a pep talk to employees, but in fact it is just as applicable for business leaders. And with far greater impact.
When a business leader starts asking the stupid questions, her employees process that and perceive it as company culture. The leader will become a role model for a new mindset in the company. Challenging the why, the how and the what is essential if you want creativity as a key resource in your company.
Remember, this is not a mean to challenge everything and do everything from scratch. This is not your go-to method for all projects – I want to emphasize that.
But if you are moving around in the innovation space and have a mission to solve problems like they haven't been solved before, you should definitely pay attention.
If you are not directly involved with innovation there are still many learnings to gain. Because asking questions are also a method to balance your FOMO and FOBO.
Balancing your fears
How on earth does asking questions help you maintain control of your fears?
– It is quite simple, actually.
While your fears are grounded in the unknown, you can reduce those fears by asking the right questions.
If you fear that a competitor will disrupt your industry utilizing a new technology your FOMO might blossom. However ask yourself and your colleagues why you are in business, how you can do things differently and what you are afraid of from the competitors.
On the other hand FOBO can make you postpone important decisions in a belief that if you wait until the technology has improved, you'll gain a competitive edge. It is sometimes true, but if it prevents you from acting, you probably should ask yourself the same three questions. Why you are in business, how you can do things differently and what you are afraid of from the competitors.
These initial fears are often the drivers for innovation. The fear that someone else are disrupting your industry or that someone else comes up with a better way of doing things.
In the next part of the book we look into practical ways of handling the fears and turning them into tangible work items. But first we need to make sure that you are prepared as we look into how you need to make yourself relevant.