The Ministry of Silly Questions

Jul 21 2015 by Tim Lambert Print This Article

This might sound very Monty Pythonesque, but have you ever considered setting up a Ministry of Silly Questions in your company and seeing what new insights you might find?

This isn't a frivolous idea. You see, we aren't silly enough. We're far too serious. We take ourselves too seriously and we're often afraid to look silly by challenging the things that everyone else seems to take for granted. Most of us were brought up to believe that if you ask a silly question, you get a silly answer. But that's a mistake, because silly answers that upset the status quo might be just the thing that brings you a competitive edge and makes all the difference to your business.

What Does a Silly Question Look Like?

Well here are a few:

  • Do we have to go to China for manufacturing suppliers?
  • Is it always true that there are economies of scale when purchasing?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • What happens if we got half our workforce to work from home?
  • Do we need to pay more to get more?
  • Why don't we stop sending emails?
  • Do we need managers?
  • Why do we need the latest software?
  • What would happen if we didn't send Christmas cards?
  • Do we need a regional office?
  • How much do we really want that account?
  • Why do we do things in this sequence?
  • Should we be a sales-led or a design-led company?
  • Do our customers want lots of choice or would they prefer a reliable and consistent smaller product range?
  • Why should it take us two hours to do a changeover?
  • Why are we buying this?

It's the inquisitive, the curious and the downright silly people who often stumble across the greatest eureka moments, simply by asking the questions that no-one thinks of asking or dares to ask.

How often have you sat in a meeting, lost and confused, and breathed an enormous sigh of relief when the rookie asks the silly question? Something like: "Excuse me, I understood your reference about 'milking the situation', but could you explain what you meant by 'yoghurt cities'? I'm afraid I got a little lost."

Most us prefer to sit there in our state of confusion and have a quiet word outside with a friendly colleague rather than show our ignorance in public. But this isn't the only reason we don't ask silly questions.

Sacred Cows

There are too many of them in business. Most companies have a couple of dozen. They're no-go areas where only the fearless and intrepid (or silly) dare to venture.

Too many things are taken for granted. Too many questions are unasked or unanswered. And too much received wisdom is unwise and shouldn't be so well-received.

There are various reasons for this. Sometimes we are so certain we are right that there doesn't seem any point in trying to work out why we might be wrong. Sometimes there are too many vested interests in high places that benefit from the way things are being done. The last thing they want is some young upstart challenging their authority (or their benefits).

Sometimes things have become so interwoven and complex that trying to unravel one silly practice means getting tangled up by another ten; so the best advice is to leave well-alone. And then, of course, maybe someone did ask the silly question sometime in the past and had their cards marked. So others quickly learned that it's not a question you ask.

I get all that. I get scared like anyone else. I don't want to be the lone Silly, scapegoated for daring to ask the daft and unspeakable question.

But what if I wasn't alone? What if we set aside time within our teams and across the company to have Silly Time. What if everyone engaged in these Silly Questions? What if our managers didn't make us feel silly for asking the question, and didn't mind being silly themselves?

Now I don't feel so scared or exposed. Now I feel I have the licence to be as daft as my daft gene will allow. Now I can really start exploring some of the myths and customs that have defined the way we do business.

What Does Silly Practice Look Like?

Let's take one of our Silly Questions as an example. "Is it always true that there are economies of scale when purchasing?"

Well, it's often taken as read that we get the best deals if we buy in bulk. But by asking this question and openly exploring it, we might come up with a range of interesting viewpoints, all of which could be probed further, that might come up with a different and (dare I say it) more profitable answer. Here are a few things we might come up with:

  • Buying in bulk won't necessarily be cheaper if we don't have good negotiators doing the deal.
  • Buying in bulk means tying up cash for longer.
  • Buying in bulk to get the best price sometimes means we order more than we need.
  • Buying in bulk means we need space to store the increased deliveries, which comes at a price.
  • Buying in bulk means there is a risk that some of the products become obsolete before we use them.
  • Buying in smaller quantities or 'just-in-time' would require closer controls to ensure we don't run out of stock.
  • Buying in smaller quantities makes it easier for us to shop around between orders.
  • Buying in smaller quantities might encourage us to be more careful with how we use our resources.
  • On balance, buying in smaller quantities might actually be cheaper and more efficient.

Try Not To Load

The danger with asking these silly questions is that we might automatically imply the way things currently happen are wrong. This is especially true if the question is delivered as a leading one that expresses a strong opinion such as, "Don't you think it's ridiculous that we are still using agency staff?"

This tends to make people defensive. After all, they might have been responsible for implementing the practice in the first place. But the purpose of the Silly Question, if it is to add any value at all, is to stimulate open and unfettered analysis of a current belief or system or practice. Asking leading questions will not do this. Asking genuinely open questions will.

So we could rephrase the question to something that fits our silly criteria:

"What would happen if we stopped using Agency staff?" or "How could we run our business without using Agency staff?"

Ministerial Code For Silly Question Time

To ensure that Silly Question Time is productive, there should be some rules which dictate the way the Silly Question is asked and how it is dealt with. Here's a few to be going on with.

  • Don't ask the question as a ruse to embarrass or blame someone
  • Ensure all questions are asked in the spirit of genuine enquiry
  • Ensure everyone in the group asks one silly question at each Silly Session Sitting
  • Ensure all silly questions are written down
  • Have regular Silly Question Time
  • Make sure everyone knows that nothing is off-limits
  • Mix the population so that people can see it is a company-wide thing
  • Always make sure there is at least one manager at a session - and encourage them to ask the silliest questions of all!
  • If you're sure you know the answer, make a firm proposal and argue your case instead of asking a silly question, which might look like manipulation.

So get busy creating your new Ministry of Silly Questions. Spread the word, evangelise. Silly Season is here and we're not afraid of it!

[Oh - A yoghurt city is a place with an 'active culture', meaning a large number of museums, theatres, art galleries, etc.]


About The Author

Tim Lambert
Tim Lambert

Tim Lambert is the founding Director of UK-based Kay-Lambert Associates Limited, a people & organisation development consultancy.