Actually, there is such a thing as a dumb question

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I’m a big fan of questions. I’m endlessly curious, truly interested in people’s origin stories. We’d all be more connected if we just told each other about the messy, convoluted, zig-zaggy paths and resets we’ve done in life.

I suppose that’s why I headed to journalism school. What’s cooler than getting paid to find out stuff from people and write it down? That path zigged a bit and now I just annoy people with my questions as a hobby.

That got me thinking about the saying “there are no dumb questions.” I get the goal behind this. Let’s get everyone involved, no shaming allowed. There are no bad ideas!

Maybe that works for brainstorming, or maybe not. I’ve come to realize that unlike pastry-in-the-sky concepts tossed out at godawful management retreats, stupid questions really do exist.

Let me explain

I’m not talking about the times we screw up our courage and ask what an acronym means, or how a sports metaphor directly relates to third-quarter earnings. Dumb questions are ones we could figure out ourselves and are, in fact, probably things we should already know.

When we ask the same questions after they’ve been answered, we show that we didn’t listen the first time, or worse, didn’t learn from the experience. Let’s call them non-PS questions for our purposes, i.e, non-problem-solving questions.

I manage a fairly large part-time staff who does most of their work online. In the world of the distributed workforce, problem-solvers rule. Examples of non-PS questions:

  • How do I change my password?
  • My students can’t upload their assignments. What should they do?
  • A link in my course is broken. What should I do?


Better questions:

  • My students struggle with uploading assignments. Could we produce a tutorial showing them how to do this?
  • I’ve tried to reset my password using the tech support link, but it is still not working. Could you refer me to someone who can help?
  • I’ve fixed a broken link in my course. Here it is so you can be sure it gets updated in the next iteration of the course.

 

It’s the old saw: It’s not so much what you say, but rather how you say it. Or in this case, it’s not what you’ve tried, but rather, if you’ve tried. Putting the burden of responding to a question on someone else when a simple Google search could answer it reveals your underlying work ethic. It says I’d rather have someone else answer my question than try to solve it myself.

 

Here are some tips to help develop a problem-solving mindset:

  • Before asking your boss, ask yourself. Can I solve this one my own? Is this something I can research from existing work materials or online? Is there a colleague who might be able to help?
  • If you find yourself asking the same questions repeatedly, ask why you’ve been unable to get an answer. Is it an existential question that requires an ability to see into the future? The crystal ball is a myth. Is it something that you don’t have the power to affect? Let it go. And you may never get that power, so try to get it or move on.
  • What if we… This question works especially well if the problem is long-standing, also known as the dreaded “that’s the way it’s always been” situation. What if we…opens the door to new ideas in a non-threatening way. For example, “My course has many broken links. What if we fixed them now, but also made a plan for a course refresh?”

 

Try one of these ideas the next time you’re tempted to ask something you know you could fix. Let me know how it goes in the comments!

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