‘We Don’t Ask Enough Dumb Questions!’

This post is a reflection on a couple of recent conversations and experiences with clients thinking about trying to make good decisions.

We don’t ask enough ‘dumb’ questions’. Dumb questions rather than wasting time or being the distraction you might assume are often highly valuable. They’re great and flushing out the assumptions in a situation. Far too often assumptions are implicit and therefore it’s not clear they are assumptions. We all make assumptions – they allow us to progress our thinking and actions by way of reasonable and reasoned hypothesis on the future. Problems occur when we allow assumptions to turn into ‘facts’ and then build plans upon those foundations, which turn out to be made of sand. In World War II the French high Command assumed that German Armoured Formations would never be able to move through the Ardennes, it would be too wooded, steep and the roads were too few and too narrow. An assumption that turned out to be wrong!

People who are good at asking dumb questions; children, those with little to lose, mavericks who are not constantly monitoring their self-interest in a situation, those who are intellectually self-confident enough and humble enough to ignore the perceived social consequence of asking what we assume everyone knows.

We don’t ask enough smart questions’. We don’t ask enough smart questions. Not generally for lack of intellect but for the inability to flip a thing on its head, turn it upside down and consider it from a different angle. This requires curiosity, scepticism and a willingness to challenge – these are intellectual skills we acquire with practice and usually as a result of having the luck to work with someone adept at this mode of thought. When I went through officers’ week for selection into the SAS the commanding officer at the time had a mind like a surgeon’s scalpel. He would cut into an issue with ruthless precision. As the patient this could sometimes be painful to say the least but it was also immediately illuminating as he unlocked a problem with a series of challenging questions.

A final thought, if we recognize this in our own teams or organizations, what are we going to do about it? If the solution were obvious or easy what would that look like?

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