design musings product development

A Damn Good Question

A simple question, asked with child like wonder, can often allow you to see things in a fresh new way.


Eric R. Larson Dumb Question



It’s a meeting. A BIG meeting. Lots of people, suits, briefcases, no empty chairs. There are some stern lectures. Some table pounding. Plenty of scowls.

Suddenly, a quiet, trembling voice asks, “Can I ask a dumb question?”

There is a murmur, a few chuckles. The room goes quiet. A big voice responds – in a thoroughly condescending tone – There are no dumb questions. Go ahead.

The quiet voice asks a question. It is a simple question, yet poignant, insightful. Some might even call it brilliant. The room goes silent.

The big voice responds, Now that’s a good question.

The energy in the room changes. There is laughter, feelings of warmth, friendship, and belonging. The person with the quiet voice slowly stands up. There is spontaneous applause.

Good job, the big voice says. I see a bright future for you.


The world is filled with stories about business successes that were the result of a simple question. The stories usually involve some feel good moments, and a certain amount of childlike wonder, where someone was able to see things in a fresh new way. There is one major problem: these stories are bull shit.

Everyone says they want to learn new things, or to try something different. We are human beings after all; curious about the world around us. We want to probe, question, and experiment. And we are ecstatic about this process of exploration – until we realize someone is watching.

Funny thing about people, nobody wants to look like a beginner. A beginner is clumsy and awkward and totally out of place. Incredibly funny to watch – and to make fun of. The Newbie. And who wants to be a newbie?

Same thing is true about companies. Company managers will often say to their employees, “We want you to take risks. We want you to ask questions. We want you to think outside of the box.”

Fact of the matter, in most companies someone is watching. And those who are watching usually don’t have time for questions (especially dumb questions). They want answers, they want solutions – and they want them now. But how can you come up with a brilliant solution to a problem if you can’t ask any questions?

At Art of Mass Production we work with clients who are willing to engage in the process of exploration. It involves asking questions – lots of questions – followed by some serious thinking about the answers that follow. Sometimes the questions may seem dumb, and some of the answers even dumber. Sometimes you might even need to have your answers questioned.

It is a simple process – but it is not easy. It requires prep work, patience, a willingness to look a bit silly, or clumsy and awkward, sometimes even downright stupid. But almost always the process produces a damn good question, or what we like to a call a DGQ. And asking that question – however simple it may seem – is what leads to success. Getting to that question takes time, effort, and a lot of hard work. It doesn’t just pop up in a moment of fantasy.

Some people might ask, “Why would a company try to solve a problem without even exploring the underlying issues that might affect the solution?”

That is a damn good question.


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