Why asking stupid questions is the smartest thing to do

By Linnéa Siersma

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question”. You have probably heard that sentence before, maybe from a teacher or professor, encouraging you to raise your hand and participate in class. 

The concept of asking “stupid questions” doesn’t always resonate outside of the classroom. After my first year at University, I was hired as an engineering intern on a roadway construction site. I tried hard not to be perceived as ill-informed. I read through any material I could get my hands on; I kept a cheat sheet of acronyms in the margins of my notebook; I even dragged my new work boots through my mother’s garden so that they wouldn’t look so fresh. And in construction meetings, where I didn’t understand why things were done a certain way or how a system worked, you can bet I tried hard not to ask any “stupid questions”.

In reality, my decision to avoid these questions limited my ability to add value to the team. I spent more time catching up on the terminology and operating processes than helping the crew to solve problems and improve performance. There is more value to be gained from asking “stupid questions” than avoiding them; here are three reasons why:

(1) “Stupid Questions” help you to learn faster

One of the biggest deterrents for asking questions is the risk of exposing a lack of knowledge. We fear making a fool of ourselves or wasting people’s time. But by not speaking up and asking questions you risk not learning enough to contribute to the team. 

Last year, I worked with a dairy company’s packaging and distribution team on improving their overall strategy. With little time to prepare and no knowledge of the milk packaging industry, I had a lot to learn in a short time. I had one week to show progress on site, so I put on my parka, entered the chilled warehouse and started asking questions. By the end of the first day I knew a lot about milk. Sure, there was a risk that I looked foolish asking how the milk waste was disposed of (spoiler alert, they use a mop) but by day two I was able to challenge parts of the distribution process and work with the team across departments. By the end of the first week, we had identified several opportunities to reduce waste and improve the process.

You’re not always going to be the expert in a given topic, but when you shy away from asking questions out of fear of looking foolish or being irritating, you risk missing a learning opportunity and slowing your progress.

(2) “Stupid Questions” allow you to discover what is known and unknown

Recently while working with a major oil and gas company, I met with a team of engineers to discuss the design criteria for an oil sands facility. I began asking a few questions around a major cost driver: the dimensions of the facility and access road. Most of my questions were met with quick responses; the team had been working on this design for over a year and the answer to many of my questions were common knowledge. What was eye opening to the group was that not all of my basic questions were known to everyone on the team, and sometimes the answers varied by person. When I asked about the justification behind standard road widths, I was repeatedly met with the same answer:

“The road widths are based on company standards. I’m not sure where those originated from but I’m sure someone has looked into it.”

It turns out that no one on the team had looked into the standard. After digging through the company’s extensive library, I found out that the dimension was based on a standard for highway traffic with much higher speeds and volume than the small access road we were designing. Changing this dimension ended up saving the project over a million dollars!

Asking questions exposes the limit of a group’s knowledge, and more importantly, highlights incorrect assumptions. By asking questions, we eliminate the risk of missing a hidden improvement opportunity and making decisions without essential information.

(3) “Stupid Questions” provide a new perspective on hard problems

Sometimes the broad, obvious and seemingly “stupid” questions can have the greatest impact on a team, especially when tackling problems that are highly technical, involve many stakeholders, or have been worked on for a long time. Then, a beginner’s question can actually be used as a means to reframe the challenge and uncover constraints that can be missed when we lose sight of the big picture.

For the same oil sands facility that we had optimized the road widths, I also worked with a team to improve the cost of equipment buildings on site. When I joined the team of engineers during a scheduled working session, the whiteboard was filled with options to reduce costs that ranged from alternative building materials to a cost benefit analysis of modular versus stick build designs. That’s when I asked the question, “Why do we need a building in the first place?”.

It turns out that some of the equipment didn’t need to be housed in a building at all which changed the entire approach to this problem and saved the team both time and money.

Asking “stupid questions” has not only enabled me to learn at an unprecedented pace, but also given me the leverage to help teams work together to solve their hardest problems. If you still don’t believe me, the late Carl Sagan – who was one of the most well-known astrophysicists of the late twentieth century was likely never accused of being stupid - had this to say:

"There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question"