We’ve all heard the phrase “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” Asking the right business question is even less stupid (unless you don’t want to hear the answer).
Asking a question means that you’re listening, absorbing, trying to understand. Religions are born. Regimes are created (and overthrown). Companies, products and services are conceived because someone asked a question.
Too many times, at the end of a report or presentation, we ask the audience if there are questions with regards to the subject matter that was just delivered. Usually the reply is a pregnant, awkward silence.
Does that mean that no-one in the room needs some clarification on whatever’s been proposed to them? Usually not. It usually means that no-one has the fortitude to start the ball rolling and ask the first question. More often than not if two or three questions get asked – and answered – quickly, more questions will follow.
We should question the absence of questions. Asking questions is how we learn, how we understand. Questions are the beginning of how we effect change.
So why do so many organizations effectively neuter their own innovation and development potential by instilling an aura of fear for asking questions?
A lot of people in business behave in the same way that they did in school – i.e. the way to the top of the class is to give everyone the impression that you’re cleverer than the rest. Being cleverer means not only refraining from asking questions yourself. It also means deriding people that do ask questions. Maybe the reason that kids ask fewer and fewer questions as they grow-up because school – and society – rewards for having the answer, not the question.
In school, you can get away with it. Verbatim regurgitation is still far too prevalent within formal education. In business, if no-one asks questions then the status quo is maintained. The boat never gets rocked.
Yet companies need creative blood in their veins – more now than ever – if they are to thrive. Brainstorming sessions, suggestion boxes and “town hall” meetings are of little use if there isn’t an inherent culture already in place of embracing questions. You can’t force innovation. It happens when it happens.
Asking the wrong question may well be dangerous. But not asking the right question can be fatal.