Monday July 8, 2013

Go Ahead, Ask The Dumb Question

businessman raising his hand to ask question

I started my career in sales. That’s where I learned the whole “fake it til you make it” philosophy or “bull$hitting” for short. And I’ve spent the last 10 years unlearning it.

What I’ve come to realize is there’s far more value in asking dumb questions, than there is in pretending I already know the answers.

Here’s a classic example.

I have a project I’m working on with a partner. My partner is a chemistry PhD that also has an undergrad minor in engineering. We’re building a widget that we’ve patented and hope to license to a manufacturer.

Right now we’re working on a prototype. On my way back from a client meeting, I decide to swing by the proto shop to check their progress. It’s not really my domain (He’s the scientist/engineer), but in a two person company, you end up doing a bit of everything.

Jim, the engineer there, starts talking with me about sharp edges, and needing to add a radius to the cuts. Now when I think radius, I’m thinking the distance from the outside of a circle to the center, right? But that doesn’t really jive with how he’s talking and how he’s pointing at the computer. And why can’t we get straight 90 degree cuts? There must be $5m of machinery in this building! I just nod and let him keep talking.

Next, he’s talking about the undercuts that are presenting a challenge. Undercuts? I didn’t realize we had undercuts in our design, and why would they be a problem.

Side note: This is actually a pretty typical conversation that goes on in a non-engineer’s head. See, most sales people, business developers and entrepreneurs just figure that if they can dream it and scratch out a napkin drawing of it, an engineer can build it, on a shoestring budget. (Engineers, insert smiley here.)

I digress.

Finally I pipe up and just ask- “Can we go back to the radius issue you were talking about? I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that.” He went back into the shop and grabbed some widgets for examples. And all of a sudden, I understand radius within the context of engineering and machining widgets!

I did the same regarding undercuts and he happily reviewed the CAD drawings and pointed out the undercuts and the issues they represent with manufacturing. And all of a sudden, I understand undercuts in machining!

My takeaway from this afternoon- when I go ahead and ask the dumb questions I’m embarrassed to ask, I get answers. This means, the next time I’m developing a widget, I’ll be pre-loaded with great questions to ask. I actually will be smarter next time!

The other thing I’ve learned in this situation and others, is that people aren’t actually put off by my so-called dumb questions. In fact, often it endears them to me. It makes them want to help.

Jim, the engineer I was chatting with, ended up giving me a tour of their machine shop before I left, showed me several injection molds, referencing the things I learned sitting in the front office. It was very cool, and very kind on his part.

Clearly, he was enjoying sharing his genius with someone who was genuinely interested.

So go ahead. Ask the dumb questions. Stop with the head nodding and mumbling things like, “right”, “ya”, or “I see”. Just ask.

Anyone else have a good “dumb question” story?


Chris Nordyke is an integrated marketer and strategy consultant. He works with owners and senior business leaders to transform and grow service companies via a unique holistic approach that drives referral business and client retention. Click here to schedule a complimentary consult with Chris.


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