I recently spent an evening with a group of MBA students who were practicing their networking skills. Most of them expressed interest in learning about my career journey. When I walked them through my varied history, I got follow-up questions, most of which centred around the advice I would provide as they entered the workforce. One student, though, wanted to know more. He challenged me on having changed industries multiple times and wanted to understand how that experience shaped me. He wanted to know why I said I enjoyed those experiences. After some thought, the only answer I could give him was that I had learned the power of being the “dumb guy in the room”.
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. -James Thurber
The Dumb Guy In The Room
It may seem like an odd thing to admit to, but throughout my career, I’ve been proud to be the dumb guy in the room. When you change industries, it is almost impossible not to be the dumb guy at least some of the time. But what I have learned moving between industries is that having a naive view of a business is powerful.
When you enter a new business or industry, you obviously have no history or background with the company or industry norms. You don’t have assumptions about how things work or how they have always been done. Your inexperience gives you a perspective that many or most in the company probably don’t have. You have a choice to make with that perspective; you can spend your time learning the norms and adopting them yourself, or you can spend your time asking the naive questions that nobody else would think of asking.
After the MBA networking event, I did some research on the concept of being the dumb guy and was rewarded with a great book that explores it. “A More Beautiful Question” by Warren Berger explores the power of a questioning culture in our organizations and highlights stories that support that thesis.
Naive Questions are Disarming
I consistently position myself as an idiot. -Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO
In this quote, Paul Bennett is talking about leveraging naive questions to disarm people and force them away from their stock answers. Asking basic naive questions forces people to think about the question and creates an opportunity for new learning. Imaging asking a banker “why do we charge interest on our mortgages?” Or perhaps asking a retail grocery leader “why do we always place the fresh produce at the entrance of the store?”.
I’ve actually asked both of those questions (and many more similar naive questions) in my journeys. Incredibly I have found that in almost every case I have received an odd look. Then a stock answer. And then with a simple follow up of “could there be another way to look at it?”, a blank stare.
The reality is that in almost every business and industry there are things that just are. Things that nobody questions. Things that have worked a certain way since the beginning of recorded time. Being comfortable being the dumb guy in the room and being willing to ask naive questions forces people to step out of their comfortable assumptions and think about their underlying reasons.
Naive Questions Surface Opportunities
In one of my roles, I was working on digitizing a paper process, so we were moving our old paper forms and documents into digitally stored documents. In this industry, there was a high level of regulation which had resulted in a significant volume of corporate policies to ensure compliance. When it came to documents, there were clear directives in the company policy which outlined storage and destruction rules.
The team working on the problem had designed a truly elegant (and complex) solution to meet the policy directives in the new digital world. Documents would be captured and stored securely. Usage would be tracked and date-stamped. Documents would be retained for the policy-directed period and then deleted according to the destruction policy.
When I reviewed the work my first question cut right to the root of the problem they were solving. “What are the regulations around document storage, retention, and destruction of digital documents?”. I received blank stares until someone finally offered the company policy for documents as an answer.
My naive question then prompted an investigation and some interesting answers:
- The regulations only included minimum retention durations for certain types of documents.
- There was no regulation that would prevent permanent storage of documents with no destruction ever.
- The company policy was written to include retention and destruction durations to minimize off-site secure file storage costs when dealing with paper forms. (And the policy was written over 25 years prior to this project)
By asking a naive question we were able to completely eliminate huge parts of the complexity. We no longer had to track usage for destruction purposes. There was no need to count-down timing to destruction. We no longer needed to worry about how to delete files securely.
The cost of the solution was cut by 80% through one simple, naive question.
Use The Power of The Dumb Guy
Regardless of whether you have been in an industry or company for three days or 30 years, you have the power to ask naive questions. But to get to the naive questions, you need to change your thinking. Every time you find yourself reaching for a stock answer or relying on an industry assumption to justify a decision, stop. This is your chance to find a naive question that might force you to explore things differently.
If you’re struggling to find the right naive questions, find someone new to help you. Look around and find the person who most recently joined the company and ask their opinion. Look to friends and family who work in completely different industries and ask their opinion. Seek out fresh perspectives that might make you think differently.
Whatever you do, don’t accept stock answers or long-held assumptions as facts.
Empower your inner “dumb guy in the room” and foster your naivety.
There is power in those questions.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.