Are There Really No Stupid Questions?

Maybe. Sometimes the asker just needs to be encouraged to think through a situation more thoroughly to come up with his or her own answers.

men in a shop

Qsine’s “three solutions” approach encourages everyone in the shop to come up with their own viable options and then select one based on its merits.

As the guy in my shop expected to know all of the answers, people often automatically come to me whenever questions come up. Some of those questions are valid, some are truly challenging and some are beyond me. Others represent laziness, and some I consider downright stupid.

But what bothers me more than the stupid questions is the fear that something stupid will happen because stupid questions aren’t asked or, worse, because valid questions aren’t asked.

I have always found it hard to draw a line on when to enforce “discipline” on questions that seem to be born from laziness, from wanting a quick answer or opinion on a matter instead of the asker thinking through the question and coming up with his or her own possible answers. When it comes to meeting expectations, mine or those of the customers, there are a lot of areas that require a clarified position.

When I encourage too much discussion for clarity, my day gets consumed by dealing with a lot of off-the-cuff questions. I don’t like to make people feel “dumb” for approaching me, but I also don’t like it when they seem to put their brains in neutral and try to pass off all sorts of questions to me. A lot of times, this is more of a reflection on someone’s personality than on whether or not they are good at their jobs.

One of my work-arounds for this is letting it be known in advance that if I believe employees are not thinking things through enough before asking me a question, I will ask them to come back with a proposal of three solutions of their own to the question. Everyone seems to understand the validity of this approach, and most have found they eventually do come up with their own answers without even talking to me. When they do approach me, it will be to get confirmation on what they think is the best solution, or it will be looking for an alternative because they don’t like any of their solutions.

So, when I feel inundated with questions from people, I simply say to them “three solutions.” This tells them I feel like they are asking a “stupid” question, one they haven’t thought through enough. Sometimes they don’t return with that same question, as they have come to realize they already know what to do. Other times, they shout across the shop, “I’m going to. . .” and just look for a thumbs-up or for me to approach them for more detail.

Of course, not everything gets solved so easily. Perplexing questions still come as questions, not three solutions, but those don’t bother me, and it shouldn’t bruise someone’s ego to ask for help.

Beyond just stopping the barrage of questions, this approach seems to help foster better solutions in the shop overall, especially among younger staff. Being encouraged to come up with viable options and to select one based on its merits helps them form good habits. Sometimes, these workers even approach me just to report that they employed the three-solutions method and describe the outcome. I like that I can see the pride in their eyes as they tell me about it. Seldom do I have to let the wind out of their sails by suggesting another alternative, but when I do, I always try to do so with tact.

Talking through my confirmation of which is the best option gives employees a feel for 
what I think is a priority, and this is an important differentiator from just getting a quick answer to a question. A lot can be lost in such a quick response, particularly from introverts like me who tend to think things through before speaking.

Training people to come up with three solutions on their own before asking a question doesn’t happen instantly. I still sometimes have to remind myself not to answer their questions directly and remind them to come back with their own solutions. But with practice, it all comes together, time is saved, good habits are formed and safety is uncompromised.

About the Author

Kevin Saruwatari

Kevin is the owner of Qsine Corp., which was founded in 1968 by his late father, Mick. The custom machine design and manufacturing firm specializes in industrial product development, prototypes and short-run work. More at qsine.ca.