Great business advice – ask stupid questions

Here’s the latest in our series “things to tell your intern about working in business because no-one else will".

For me this does go back to my very first job in Purchasing, buying raw materials. My boss, Mike Allaway, an excellent boss and procurement executive, had a chat before I went out on my first supplier site visit.

“Never be afraid to ask stupid questions” he said. “It’s probably not stupid, even if you think it is, and often the apparently obvious question is actually the most insightful thing you can say”.

And he was right. Here are some I think I used at one time or another.

  • “Why does that machine keep stopping”?
  • “Why is that man standing there with a bucket”?
  • “Why does the same cheese go into three different rooms and get different supermarket’s labels put on it”?
  • “Why is ink everywhere”?
  •  “Why are none of those machines working?”
  •  “Why are you emptying those boxes and re-packing the same product into the other ones?

That’s the sort of questions I discovered got pretty interesting answers in my years of visiting factories and plants! But all at one level might have seemed like stupid questions.

But it is the same in any environment. It might be that burning question you want to ask the speaker at a conference, but wonder whether everyone else will snigger. Or something the supplier says in a negotiation that triggers a question that seems too obvious to  ask – “sorry, you said you were looking for a 2% price increase but all those figures seem to be 5% higher?”

Never be afraid to ask. Be brave.  Very occasionally, it turns out it actually was a daft question – just laugh it off and it will soon be forgotten. But far better that than thinking days or weeks later, “I knew there was something wrong with that factory / contract / proposal / product.”

Over to you - anyone got any good examples of  "stupid" questions that turned out to be anything but?

Voices (5)

  1. Ian Heptinstall:

    Now we have apps that tell us where we are and how to get to somewhere else, can you get one that answers the question “Why did I come here?”

  2. The Guitar Man:

    Spot on FF!!!!

  3. Final Furlong:

    On a professional note, I often find myself saying “I know this is going to come across as being a daft question but….” though I’ve noted it’s always a question to which I know the answer. I tend to ask these questions to benefit others and these are often stakeholders.

    On a personal note, when I used to imbibe a few libations with Guitar Man in a wine bar “somewhere in London” I would often leave the premises and ask the nearest stranger the notoriously stupid question “where am I?” I’ve now downloaded a compass application onto my i-phone which has proved to be most useful in this situation… However, I also recall on one particular train journey home, when the train arrived at a station, asking a complete stranger the equally stupid question “is this my station”? (to which they responded “yes”, and, luckily, it was…).

    1. The Guitar Man:

      FF – I remember those days well! On one particular ocassion, I entered a bar through Door A but exited (albeit much later) through Door B and was completely bamboozled about my location! I phoned my good lady to ask her where I was. She replied that she didn’t know but was willing to hazard a guess. She did guess and was right! The moral being “Stupid questions often give you the best answer!!!

      1. Final Furlong:

        I remember that story well. (The Kingston Tup?)

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