The Dumbest Person in the Room

Photo: parallel travels #1 by lorenzo cuppini verducci (Flickr) Photo: parallel travels #1 by lorenzo cuppini verducci (Flickr)

I n my career, I’ve noticed that the most successful work emerges from a crystal-clear answer to the question, Why are we doing this?

That sense of purpose sometimes arises organically, but in my experience, it is more often the result of someone bothering to ask that exact question.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I was talking to a friend of mine – a software product designer with a long career and some very successful projects under his belt. I was asking him about his work, and he said, “The secret of my success is that I’m not afraid to be the dumbest person in the room. The words, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ must come out of my mouth about fifteen times a day.”

This doesn’t stem from a desire to annoy the hell out of everyone he works with. He’s doing it with a genuine desire to understand the vision and purpose, so that he can help design the best possible solution.

We all know the adage: Knowledge is power. Well, hoarding knowledge might get you power in some circles (certain academic environments spring to mind), but sharing knowledge, asking questions, and staying curious about what you don’t know are the real secrets to unlocking that power.

This applies no matter what kind of project you’re working on: A new business idea; a software product; a piece of writing; some kids’ clothes; a lab experiment.

There’s real risk in this approach – don’t get me wrong. If you want to achieve this particular brand of success, you’ll need to sacrifice a few things. Your familiar habits – doing things the same way you’ve always done them, or going along with other people’s ways of working because you don’t want to rock the boat. Your comfort levels – staying quiet for fear of looking like, well, the dumbest person in the room. Your status as an expert – trading on easy answers rather than probing into open-ended questions.

We tend to focus on – and jump to – solutions, rather than sitting with the questions & problems. Especially when our success has stemmed from our “expertise.” And the instinct behind that is a good one, but it can result in skipping a very important step.

When we aren’t clear on our purpose, our odds of achieving it are pretty low.

So: How much are you willing to put at stake for a better outcome?

Will you risk looking like the dumbest person in the room?

3 Responses to “The Dumbest Person in the Room” Subscribe

  1. Chris 28 Aug 2012 at 4:20 am #

    That’s why you always bring your developer to the meeting.

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