Starts and Evens (Lesson 21)

I spent five hours in a meeting yesterday during which I asked many “stupid” questions. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted:

When it comes to asking “stupid questions” in meetings, I like to ask mine early and often.

Asking stupid questions is Lesson 21  I learned as a CIA manager. The questions you hesitate to ask are precisely the questions you probably most need to address. Now, why do people hesitate to ask “stupid” questions?  I think it’s because the asker doesn’t want to look foolish. She presumes that she is the only person that doesn’t know the answer or thinks the question is too simplistic or fundamental to ask. Surely, the briefer, discussants thought of this already, she asks herself. But my experience in asking “stupid” questions reveals they have a high batting average of uncovering faulty assumptions and other basic process/thinking errors.

It is particularly important that managers step forward to ask the stupid questions.

  1. The other people on your teams, you know all those small people in subservient positions, they believe, and truth be told they are probably correct, that they run the risk of more consequences by appearing stupid in a public forum.
  2. The individuals briefing the project are also more likely to dismiss a question from the small people or try to doubletalk their way through it.
  3. But the most compelling reason why managers need to ask the “stupid” questions is that, in most organizations, people already think we’re incompetent, a nutcase, or stupid, so really what do you have to lose.

Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future just wrote a passionate and excellent blog post on the need to develop different organizational and revenue models. It really is a must read. For those of you who think the idea of moving away from current economic principles is unworkable, a fantasy, just remember that up until 150 years ago half of this country ran on an economic model based on slavery. And its defenders argued it was inconceivable to move away from it. We have over-learned the lessons of capitalism. Tens of millions of people around the world have become used to providing value to others for no direct monetary reward–think Wikipedia and Twitter. This is a trend we can build on.

Speaking of Wikipedia, I was in San Francisco last week and had an opportunity to visit the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit engine facilitating the wiki community. What a great vibe!!!! Clearly the individuals there believe in the upside potential of human beings working together. Cynics need not apply.

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