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The Power of Asking Dumb Questions

Great solutions and insights often start with someone having the guts to ask a 'dumb' question.

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The people who work within my organization, Scribe Media, are called Tribe Members. And one day, a new Tribe Member stood in front of our co-founder and dropped two black trash bags on the ground.

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Our co-founder looked at the Tribe Member, then down to the trash bags.

"What the hell is this?"

"These are the binders for the Guided Author workshop," the Tribe Member said. "You asked me to bring them."

"In trash bags? What are you doing to me?!" These were going to be handed out to workshop attendees. Garbage bags was not the look we were going for.

The new Tribe Member didn't know what to say.

Later, I asked him, "Why didn't you just ask someone what to carry these binders in?"

He looked down. "I didn't want to ask a dumb question."

I explained to him that there's no such thing as a dumb question, but there are dumb actions. "Next time, ask the dumb question and leave the trash bags behind," I advised.

The value of "dumb" questions

Every question has value -- even so-called dumb questions. In an organization as complicated as Scribe, we encourage everyone to ask questions all the time. It's the best way to ensure everyone understands what we're doing.

I've had plenty of people push back on that, asking me, "What if someone asks the same question over and over again?"

I responded, "It's still a good question because I'm learning something in the process. Either I'm not explaining myself well enough or the person doesn't care to learn the answer." Both are issues that need to be addressed.

Related: Want the Upper Hand? Ask the Dumb Questions.

Asking the obvious question

Just because something is easy for you doesn't mean it's easy for other people. Many leaders forget that, so you dismiss questions as dumb because you already know the answer. That doesn't mean it's dumb -- it just means it's not obvious to other people.

We've all been there: you're in a meeting, conference, or lecture, and you're completely lost. You have a question, but you don't speak up. Why? Because you're afraid of looking dumb.

Then someone else raises their hand, asks the same question, and you breathe in relief because someone else spoke up. But if they didn't? Everyone would remain lost.

Here's a rule I encourage everyone in Scribe to follow:

Every time you have a question in your head, and you're nervous to ask it for fear of looking dumb, assume that there are three to five other people in the room with the same question. Just ask the question.

Related: Overcoming Mental Barriers Starts With Asking Constructive Questions

Learning from questions

Most companies in corporate are not set up to encourage people to ask questions. You get fired for asking too many questions. Not us -- we're the exact opposite. You can get fired if you don't ask enough questions.

Why? Because we value Learning, and you can't learn anything if you don't ask questions. And some of the best learning comes from asking so-called dumb questions. Our Tribe Members get answers that allow them to perform better, and I get insights into problems in the company that I didn't even know existed.

A simple example to illustrate:

Scribe is a publishing company, and naturally, our office is full of books. Our Operations Coordinator asked, "Where do our new books go?" and I answered, "On the shelf in our big conference room."

Then, two weeks later, the Ops Coordinator asked me the same question again.

Two weeks later, the same thing.

Related: To Solve Big Problems, Assume Everything Is Wrong and Ask Dumb Questions

Now, the first time she asked, it was a fair question. After the second and third times, I had to ask the Ops Coordinator a question of my own:

"Okay, now you've asked me the same question three times. That's fine, we've made Asking Questions a company Principle for a reason. But I might not be explaining myself clearly. What's going on?"

"There's not enough shelf space in the big conference room for all of the new books we're publishing."

Boom. From a seemingly dumb question, we learned about a problem that we didn't even know existed (and something about the Ops Coordinator). That's the value of creating a where anyone can ask any question.

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