The value of stupid questions

“Is there such a thing as a stupid question?” almost certainly answers itself: of course there is!  We read them all the time in the blogosphere;  kids ask them; strangers at the grocery store ask them. Of course we never ask a single stupid question ourselves–but that’s the topic for a psych blog, not an engineering one.

In the engineering world there are of course still stupid questions, or at least ones that waste time, promote discord or camouflage the real issue.  But good engineers–smart engineers–know when it is the right time to ask stupid questions. Like at the start of a project? Like when a spec isn’t clear?  Like when time is of the essence and we need to ship today and it’s better to get it right than do it twice. Again this can go the other way–too many questions slow everyone down and a deadline is missed.  A balance is needed (see our blog on Lagom, the thoroughly excellent Swedish word for “just right”), and what is really needed are smart stupid questions.

We had the kickoff meeting last week on a production test development project, a project on a near impossible time schedule with some real challenges.  We sat with our customer  (see our blog on Great Customers–this is one of them) until it got dark, asking a lot of stupid questions, mostly of the smart stupid subspecies.  Stupid questions that allowed us to get up to speed faster; stupid questions that clarified the intent behind the spec; stupid questions that filled in blanks; and stupid questions that (hopefully) will keep us from making some of mistakes that were made to date (is there ever an engineering project without mistakes?  Ask Murphy.)

Result: we have a test plan already; we’re  writing code already; we’re on schedule, or maybe even a tad ahead (don’t tell Murphy).  Yes we asked some stupid questions, but as our customer told us, “There are no stupid questions.” Not true, strictly speaking, but in this case it worked.

Chuck

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