Dumb Questions

“Where did that come from?”

“Whose bright idea was that?”

“Who wants to know?”

It’s often been said, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question.” Well, if you want to promote innovation, those three are the beginning a long list of dumb questions. They’re dumb because the source is irrelevant to the value of an idea, and because asking such questions sends a very counterproductive message.

As you read those questions, they all tend to sound negative don’t they? There’s nothing about their structure or content that makes them negative. But to most of us they sound quite negative, even downright sarcastic—because that’s the tone in which we’ve so often heard them asked. They are not questions that usually precede a compliment, or lead to praise. On the contrary, they’re typically spoken in anger or exasperation.

They all suggest that there’s something wrong with an opinion or an idea or a question, something that can be explained by knowing the source. What’s really wrong is that premise. Confusing an idea with its source is one of the oldest of logical fallacies—and it’s a sure way to kill innovative thinking.

As a former journalist, I know how crucial sources are to establishing the credibility of information, factual information. However ideas are a very different sort of animal. A good idea is a good idea on its own merits, no matter where it comes from. (And the same holds for bad ones.)

When was the last time you took a new employee aside and asked. “How could we improve the way we do things?” or, “What would make your job easier?” The answer might be very enlightening, coming from someone who sees things with fresh eyes—things everyone else may no longer even notice. Do you value and consider the suggestions of support staff as thoughtfully as those of supervisors or senior managers? You should. The people who answer the phone when a customer calls, or make sure things are delivered on time, are in a position to catch problems early when they’re small and manageable.

It may take just one instance of casually brushing off someone’s idea, or simply ignoring it, to forever lose that person as a source of innovative thinking. In most organizations, it happens far more often than that. One of the greatest compliments you can pay a person is to ask for their opinion. One of the greatest insults is to dismiss or ignore one when it’s offered. It’s demeaning, and few of us willingly risk being treated that way.

It can take considerable personal discipline to avoid judging an idea by its source. It takes vigilance to catch that sort of thinking in ourselves and in others. But that discipline and vigilance is essential if you want to promote innovative thinking.

Identifying the source of an idea is important—when you’re giving praise. Reward people for good ideas, and for just having the courage to offer their ideas. But if that’s not why you want to know, stop asking dumb questions.

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