Too many times technical managers are reluctant to demonstrate their ignorance by admitting they don’t know the answer to a question and attempt to bluff their way out of the dilemma. My opinion is that there’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.” I’ll go a step further here and say that technical managers should feel free to ask foolish questions as well.
By doing so, not only will you learn a lot more, but also you’ll take the burden off of your direct reports, who often sit through meetings hoping someone would ask precisely that question, but won’t ask it themselves because they don’t want to appear foolish.
Defining the boundaries of foolish questions
Let’s define our terms. By a foolish question, I’m talking about any kind of question that you might be expected to already know—not literally a stupid question. A foolish question is a business-related inquiry. A stupid question is, well, kind of stupid and unrelated in any way to the business at hand. In this context, “How many users does our Exchange server support?” might be a foolish question, if asked by the person who manages the Exchange operations. “Why is there air?” on the other hand, would be a stupid question.
In addition to the two types of questions involved in this column, there seem to be two types of managers who ask foolish questions: the clueless and the confident. You should, of course, strive to fall into the confident category.
Clueless managers will ask foolish questions because they simply don’t understand the implications of the question. Clueless managers will ask questions that demonstrate they are ignorant of the basic processes of the organization. This rightfully makes them look out of touch. (A foolish answer can do the same thing, by the way. I remember a scene in a movie where Michael Keaton was trying to impress Martin Mull by explaining how he was personally going to build an addition to his house, running the electricity himself. Mull asks, “110 or 220?” Keaton replies vaguely, “220, 221—whatever it takes.”)
Confident managers, on the other hand, have enough self-assurance to risk asking questions that expose their ignorance of technical details, without leaving any doubt as to their thorough understanding of the organization’s basic processes. Further, a confident manager understands that there are occasions when it’s useful to ask foolish questions.
Removing the ego for the good of the team
A writer once said that what most young people want more than anything in the world is a good friend they can talk to—about themselves. Adults may not be quite that preoccupied with themselves, but everyone has an ego and seeks to project a good image. I’m convinced that what most technical managers fear more than anything in the world is making themselves appear foolish.
To a certain extent, this is a reasonable concern. After all, as an IT manager, you’re more than likely supervising a group of very bright men and women. Further, since most managers don’t get the chance to dig into the technology as much as they’d like, you probably already worry about your technical skills and knowledge beginning to atrophy or become obsolete. Finally, since many IT professionals view nontechnical managers with suspicion, it’s reasonable not to want to give your staff any ammunition in that regard by asking a foolish question and demonstrating your technical ignorance. Despite these reasons against looking foolish, there are many instances where an IT manager would be wise to play the fool. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Meeting with a prospective vendor
Too many technical managers are unable to risk looking foolish even when talking with a vendor about a new product. Rather than asking the necessary questions to get a complete understanding of the product, this kind of manager will attempt to convince the account rep that he or she has already mastered the nuances of a product that may just be hitting the market. Needless to say, this approach hardly leads to wise purchasing decisions. A much wiser technique is to say to the account rep, “I’m going to ask a bunch of really basic questions, because I want to get a feel for exactly what your product can do.” I guarantee you that most reps would prefer this approach.
Giving cover to subordinates
A good IT manager will ask questions on behalf of his or her direct reports, in case they are unwilling to ask the questions themselves. For example, suppose that HR is making a presentation to your department on a coming change in the benefits package. A thoughtful manager might ask some questions that aren’t directly relevant to his or her situation, but might help the new employees sitting around the table understand the benefits change.
Helping during a floundering presentation
Suppose that one of your employees is giving a presentation to a department meeting. Not used to public speaking, your employee is stammering and hesitating while going through the slides. Although you could save the presentation by taking over for the employee, it could humiliate him or her. A better approach might be ask some questions that illustrate the main points of the presentation, and allow your employee to demonstrate mastery of the subject through an impromptu Q&A.
Those are just some of the reasons why it occasionally makes sense to ask foolish questions. If you’re looking for a non-IT example of this, consider Brian Lamb of C-SPAN. Each week, Lamb hosts “Book Notes,” an hour-long interview with an author about a recently published book. Lamb is never afraid to look foolish, asking questions to which he clearly knows the answers for the benefit of the viewer at home who hasn’t already read the book.
So go ahead, dare to be foolish!