This weekend I heard on the radio that Larry King, one of the most prolific interviewers of our lifetime who interviewed over 60,000 subjects over 50 years, had passed away at age 87. While I confess that as someone who generally does not watch a lot of cable news I have not seen many of his interviews in their entirety, he has been in the news enough outside of his home network on CNN that we have all seen many memorable clips. Multiple Presidents of multiple countries, iconic civil rights or cultural figures from Rosa Parks to Marlon Brando and the most divisive and controversial subjects like OJ Simpson were all across the mic from him at some point.
This memorable exchange with Jerry Seinfeld was something a few media outlets included in their "Top [Insert Number] Larry King Interviews:
What I love about this more than anything is that it was a reminder of a lesson I learned in business very late at the end of my corporate career, and is also perfectly encapsulated by this headline in the Washington Post that shows that someone else completely gets it:
"Larry King’s long run made the case that there’s no such thing as a dumb question"
(See the full article here)
When we are younger and getting our education and trying to figure out how to be successful, we often fall into the trap of believing that we always need to be the smartest person in the room. Like I did, you no doubt may have spent time in at least one corporate culture where it seems literally EVERYONE not only behaves as if they are the smartest person in the room, but acts that if they can not prove it every day they will be kidnapped by Beetlejuice and forced to endure the dull terror of the afterlife waiting room.
What I learned from that environment that is so problematic for a corporate culture is that if everyone is the smartest person in the room, no one is learning anything and the mistakes will be costlier. Why? Instead of looking at it from that direction, let's move right to the "Dumb Question" list and the answers will be apparent.
The Dumb Question List
There is no "official" list of dumb questions, but here are a few memorable ones from actual meetings that will help you see the benefit of "dumbing yourself down" per se to be a more effective business partner:
- "What does "KTQPF" stand for?
The nefarious acronyms of the corporate world are always a great place to start. I remember the first time I asked about an acronym while one of our "smartest people" was presenting and had repeated it many times. The conference room was crowded with about 20 people, and I was in the back, confused (true confession - in this particular corporate job, I often was). But when I asked the question about the acronym, I thought my worst fears had come true when 20 heads immediately turned to look at me in what I assumed was a damning condemnation of my falling out of the "smartest person" club. But no! At least half of them were wearing expressions that said "I'm so glad you asked that, I had NO idea either!"
The best part? The speaker very nonchalantly responded, thanked me for asking, then continued on.
He may not have realized it, but his presentation was more successful that day because of the "dumb question" from the back of the room.
- Why do we do things that way?
There is an inertia that evolves in every organization, no matter how conscious it may be to continually re-evaluate its methods and processes and improve on them. I was once part of a group looking to take on a big challenge to standardize some processes across thousands of employees and contractors in dozens of countries. Bridging so many languages and business cultures is never easy, and this long-term project had the added burden of overcoming years and years of a loosely organized system that let everyone do things their own way. But when the time came for the team to present their work, they had a flowchart precisely documenting the "new" process that really represented the best-case scenario of all the existing processes unified as one.
What was the dumb question here? "Why would we do that if we could do the same thing faster by eliminating the 3rd and 4th subprocesses entirely" (or something like that)? Unlike the first example, the eyes in the room this time were not one of gratitude, but of scorn. The "dumb question" here called out an overlooked and unpleasant fact that there were entire teams of people in places they did not need to be. In this case, the dumb question was still the right question, it just did not have the immediate benefit that the previous one did, but did generate positive change in the long term by leading to a more efficient organization with better resource allocation.
- "Why [insert your own assumption here]?
There is never any reason NOT to ask "Why?" with almost ANYTHING
- "Why do we assume we will get those results?"
- "Why do we need it to look that way?"
- "Why does this group own that decision?"
- "Why are they buying from our competitor?"
- "Why do we continue using that supplier?"
- "Why did we lose that sale?"
- "Why does she always outperform the her colleagues?"
You ARE Speaking for EVERYONE When You "Go Dumb"!
Finally, remember that whenever you have question in your head that you are afraid to ask, and are already thinking about the negative reaction to it if you had the gall to ask it, you are probably not alone! While the whole point of this article is about blowing up assumptions and not taking things for granted, this is one exception - assume that there are others in the room with the same question, and you will be doing all of them AND the speaker a giant favor by asking.