Friday, 20 March 2009

Ask the stupid question

Who doesn't want to look brilliant, sharp, knowledgeable, completely on top, impressive ...... This post argues that sometimes it pays to look stupid.

Reflect back on your own experience. How many times have you listened to a presentation, or read a proposal, and not understood exactly what was being said. You don't want to look stupid and say you don't understand it, especially as everybody else in the room seems to be enthusiastically supporting it. Or it begs a question, but asking it might sound stupid. If everybody is saying its good, it must be good. So you nod your OK.

The older and more senior you are, the greater this risk. No Chairman is going to admit that he didn't understand what this twenty something MBA was presenting.

Something like this on a grand scale is what I believe has happened in the financial services industry. The rate of innovation in this industry is extremely high. New and esoteric products have been invented all the time. I don't think bank managements, who decided on launching these, really understood what they were. Everybody got caught up in the tide, and nobody paused to ask the stupid question.

I suggest it would be wise to practice being comfortable with looking stupid. Distrust the following

  • The guy who's spouting jargon
  • The banker who's selling you a financial product that "everybody else is doing"
  • The IT geek who's trying to sell you the latest technology
  • The consultant who's made a very slick presentation without showing you the bill
  • The marketing guy who's showing you the latest quantitative research findings
  • Any presenter who uses lots of abbreviations you don't understand

you can add lots to this list.

When faced with something you don't understand, its best to launch your "look stupid" act. Make it an act. Tell them that you are an old geezer. Tell them that you are intellectually challenged these days. Tell them you never went to a business school. Tell them your English is a bit shaky. And then ask them to explain what they've said in simple English. Preferably in words of one or two syllables. You'll be amazed at how often the same super confident guy struggles to explain. Ask the stupid question again and again. Until you have got a sensible answer.

A manager I know, who perfected this art, used to ask "Can you please explain it in Gurmukhi" (an earthy Indian language, in which it is impossible to spout jargon). He was incredibly bright. You could never bullshit him because he didn't mind asking the stupid question.

As Warren Buffet said, there's a great motto in business. If you don't understand it, don't do it.

If only they had followed it in the finance world.


Athivas said...

//Until you have got a sensible answer.//
If only that was possible!! :) Asking stupid questions offends the presenter also!!

my boss is over 60 and is very good at it, he does not mind the venue and the extent of naivety, but he asks, that could be one reason why he knows what he knows!! A trait so strong that I must absorb from him.

This is one reason I hate conferences, nobody clearly understands what is presented, and they present 100's of papers. With the limited questioning time there, the chair has no patience in giving us the time to understand the concept fully!

Ramesh said...

@athivas - Your boss is a rare man . Often I find, the older a person is, the less likely he will profess ignorance. Yes, many conferences are a yawning bore.

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