Yes, There are Stupid Questions

I field a lot of questions. I’m sure you do, too.

In a single day I might get asked about technology recommendations, programming syntax, software integrations, business processes, locating files, and how to set up Wordpress. I don’t mind answering these questions, and I try to do so quickly and politely.

Here’s the kicker: At least 80% of these questions can be answered with a simple web search. There already dozens of tutorials, Stack Overflow threads, Quora answers, blog posts, FAQs, and documentation sections covering these topics that can be reached in a few clicks. Most of the time the person asking has not made any attempt to answer the question themselves. I consider these stupid questions.

Back in 9th grade, I asked Mrs. Dispenza a history question while I was doing my homework. She politely asked, “Where have you already looked to find that answer?” I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t looked anywhere. What she said next has stuck with me ever since:

“You should never ask someone else a question without first attempting to answer it on your own.”

Of course there are exceptions to this. Someone assisting a surgeon in the middle of a surgery shouldn’t stop to research the best way to stop bleeding, he should just ask the surgeon. Sometimes asking a veteran staff member the best process for doing something is better than spending an hour figuring it out through trial and error. There are costs and benefits to every decision. Make sure the comparison lands on the “benefits” side of that scale if you are using someone else’s time and energy.

Do This Before Asking a Question

Before you ask someone a question in the future, follow this mental checklist to make sure it isn’t a stupid question:

  • Is the answer this question worth taking someone else’s time and energy for? Will I waste social capital by asking this question?
  • Did I make a good faith attempt to answer this question myself?
  • Did I demonstrate to the person I’m asking that I tried to answer the question myself and try to pinpoint the source my confusion?
  • Instead of asking for a solution to this specific problem, can I ask to be pointed to a resource so I can solve it myself? (Documentation, a specific book, a website)

How to Answer Stupid Questions

Answer politely and quickly

If your first instinct is to tell someone they should have looked the question up before asking you, The Dude has a message for you:

Always answer the question politely and quickly. Be nice and be helpful. Don’t be an asshole.

A crisis is not a time to teach a lesson.

Tensions run high when money and reputations are on the line, so clear thinking is rare during a crisis. When there is a crisis unfolding and someone asks you for help, step in, stay calm, and fix the problem. Don’t waste time teaching people how to research and solve issues on their own–you’ll only frustrate yourself and everyone else.

Follow up afterward with an after action report for the person or team. Detail what happened, what caused it, what the solution was, and what can be done to prevent this issue in the future. Also suggest some resources the person or team can study before the next crisis hits so that they will be better equipped to respond. This report should be added to your documentation or knowledge base. It will likely help everyone in the future.

Follow up with resources that person can use to dive deeper

After answering the question, pass along a book, article, video, or a guide where the questioner can learn more and refer to later.

If the same person asks the same question again in the future, consider responding, “Hey, I remember that we talked about this last week. Did you check out the blog post I sent you? Here is that link again: http://example.com/blog-post/"

Sometimes a dialogue is the best approach

Sometimes dialoguing leads people to answer their own question and sometimes it helps me figure out the source of their misunderstanding. I like to ask,

  • “Where have you looked?”
  • “What have you tried?”
  • “What do you think the best solution is?”

Do you need better documentation?

If you keep getting the same questions over and over, your company or your project might need better documentation. This can come in many forms: Training materials, FAQs, instruction manuals, user guides, standard operating procedures, a wiki, etc.

If you have documentation, keep it up to date and make sure that all staff are kept up to date on additions and changes. Everyone needs to know it exists and referring to it needs to become part of the culture. If you don’t have documentation, make it a priority to write some! Documentation is everyone’s responsibility, not just HR’s.