The Art of the Dumb Question

by Deborah Mills-Scofield

The Art of the Dumb QuestionWhen I was a child, my parents always answered a question with an answer that led to another question.  So early on, I learned to just keep asking questions.  It drove my teachers nuts (don’t get me started on education!) and drives my husband nuts (like that’s the only reason!).  Just to bug my husband further,  I’ve taught our kids to do the same thing!  Despite this annoying habit, it’s served me pretty well in my career, learning a lot (much of which I can’t remember) along the way.

This leads me to propose that the transformation of the 20th century into the 21st be the Age of Answers to the Age of Questions.  While answers are important, it’s more important to know what questions to ask to get to the answers.  The lack of questioning is part of what got us into the mess of the last three years (or more).  We learn by asking and using that knowledge to ask more and different questions.  Which is why I hope the 21st century perfects the Art of the Dumb Question.

I’ve been told one of my “gifts” is the ability to ask very dumb questions!  I’m honored, seriously, and owe my parents a debt of gratitude.  Dumb questions are very important, especially for innovation.  Why? (no pun intended)  Because dumb questions challenge the status quo.  Dumb questions test basic, tacit assumptions. Dumb questions make us stop and think about fundamental truths.  Dumb questions get to the core.

I’ve been attending a client’s review of their global businesses’ growth strategies to ask dumb questions.  They are wise in recognizing that they are too close, too knowledgeable, too ingrained in their industries and environments to be able to step back and ask dumb questions.  Even when I was starting my own carve-outs and businesses, I always asked someone to come alongside and ask me the dumb questions.

As your organization pursues the innovation journey, who do you have to ask you the dumb questions? Who is your Dumb Questioner (DQ)?  And, as you think about it, to who can you be a DQ? Who can you serve and help by asking dumb questions?  Don’t worry, it’s not hard to do, and it’s very rewarding!


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Deborah Mills-ScofieldDeb, founder of Mills-Scofield LLC, is an innovator, entrepreneur and non-traditional strategist with 20 years experience in industries ranging from the Internet to Manufacturing with multinationals to start ups. She is also a partner at Glengary LLC, a Venture Capital Firm.

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