What does the implosion of the subprime market, the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the TARP bailout of the banks all have in common? ANSWER: No one asked the “dumb questions” that might have prevented disaster or—in the case of some banks—a refusal to reveal just where the money has gone. Think about it: What would have happened if borrowers asked “Exactly what happens when the rates go up and how much will I owe?” What if the investors with Madoff had asked, “Just how are you able to get such returns? Can you tell me specifically the areas you invest in?” Of course, rumor has it that Madoff threw out people who questioned him. Hey—when you sit like a god no one bothers to look at the throne made of smoke. And how about Congress? Where were their questions? Such questions might have been: “Just what guarantees will you create to hold the recipients accountable for performance with the monies? What shall we do to hold the Treasury responsible and what will we establish as immediate and daily oversight?” Here’s the point. The world has become so filled with jargon and complexity that it is very difficult to even grasp exactly what is happening. And because it is so complex, we’re often afraid to let our confusion show. We assume that other people understand and we don’t. So we nod our heads as if we understand the term “derivative”.
We nod our head when we hear of a plan for building roads and schools as a solution to unemployment without realizing that much of our employment base runs on the use of intellectual capital instead of heavy machinery. Question: “What is the plan for creating jobs in this sector?” The value of seemingly “dumb” questions is that it makes everyone stop and think. It invites the deeper exploration. At the very least, it educates the questioner and at best, it can reveal fallacies in logic and action. But “dumb” questions also require courage.
People get rude, defensive and even hostile when challenged. To deflect these behaviors, allow the question to be something that indicates you need assistance. “I guess I must be slow but could you please explain…” or “I hear what you are saying but I am having a hard time following. Please outline…” When we cast ourselves as being “dumb” through smart-as-fox questions, we might do everything from forestalling a bad decision to creating a far more appropriate plan of action. That means that “dumb” could very well be the new SMART.