“The Only Stupid Question is the One You Don’t Ask”

You’ve been there.  A question sits on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t, no you won’t, ask it.  Pushing back questions that surface in your consciousness is equivalent to painting over mildew.  It might take the problem off your mind for a short while, but you have not addressed the underlying issue.  And when the mildew resurfaces you’ve let a minor problem turn nasty.

There are many reasons you can give yourself to not to ask your question.

  • Maybe you asked it already and got an answer (but you aren’t satisfied).
  • Maybe you feel you should know the answer (but you don’t). This happens a lot when you are in a new business domain.
  • Maybe you think everyone else understands what was said (they probably don’t).

I’m here to tell you DON’T DO IT. Find a way to get over, past, or around whatever hesitation is causing you to hit your internal pause button. Ask your question. And don’t just ask it, ask it until it is answered and your internal gut check comes back positive for comfort.

I’ve been in these situations.  You ask a question and you see the following accumulation of non-verbal responses: a blank stare , an eye roll, and a sigh…yes, maybe you’ve temporarily frustrated a few people who want out of the meeting.  But I’m telling you if you have a question and if you’ve done your homework, the worse thing you can do is let it go unanswered.

When I was first starting out as a BA and uncertain of my BA skills, I did this all the time.  I assumed everyone in the room was smarter than me and that they knew and would act on the underlying answers to these latent questions of mine.  I feared appearing incompetent so I kept many questions to myself. But many, many times, the same issue that sat on the tip of my tongue surfaced as a much bigger issue a few weeks later. If anyone had thought about the issue, they certainly hadn’t acted on it.  Just like painting over mildew doesn’t rid you of the real problem.

I’ve taken a new stance on questions and understanding.  If I don’t understand something, I assume someone else is also in the dark.  And if it strikes me as important, I ask it then and there.  I deal with the non-verbal reactions head on and probe until I get my answer.  I can’t tell you how many times this behavior has yielded an “aha” moment for someone else on the team.

True leaders worry less about how they are perceived in the short-term and more about actionable results in the long-term.  Ask your questions; probe until you get answers.

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Comments

  1. Chike Chinukwue says

    I would say we are conditioned in the IT profession (speaking broadly) to not ‘teach Grandma to suck eggs’ as they say in the UK.

    You know how it is when you are told to Google it Stupid and for suggesting that you get to wear the T-Shirt and all.

    So creative ignorance as suggested by Jim is what we’ve always done in IT. In order words:

    a) Do the home work first (Google/search it first) before you ask that stupid question.

    b) If you have to ask the stupid question, have a pen and paper ready to jot it down so you don’t have to ask again.

    c) If you do have to ask again simply do so for clarity. Then you can ask some more stupid questions.

  2. Creative Ignorance — that’s a great term and brings up lots of useful ideas for ensuring you ask your questions! I also think BAs with deep expertise “know what they don’t know” and this can make it more difficult for them to ask questions. It was Cecilie Hoffman who gave me the great reminder: “Check your ego at the door.” — i.e. ask your question even if it hurts your pride a bit. Thanks or your contribution, Jim!

  3. Jim Willette says

    I use what I call Creative Ignorance. When new to a situation, and having made sure that the information isn’t readily available elsewere, I openly admit a level of ignorance and ask the questions that need asking. I try to keep from asking the same question more than twice. That admission is actually on two levels, the first and easist is to the people you are working with, the second is to yourself. Many people, myself included, take pride in their broad knowledge. This pride can be a serious barrier to acquiring new knowledge. There is an old adage, “It is nearly impossible to teach someone what they already know.” Obvioulsy what we know isn’t always correct.

    I always enjoy your blogs and interviews. Keep up the good work.

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