Ask dumb questions

If you want to be a bad product manager, avoid asking awkward or naive-sounding questions. You’re responsible for a major area of the business, and you can’t appear to be clueless about basic issues. There’s an appropriate time to ask basic questions, and it’s at the beginning of a product life cycle or a specific project. IF you raise those types of issues up at any point later down the line, everyone will question your ability to understand the business and lead the product.

If you want to be a good product manager, do not be afraid of asking what may seem to be dumb questions. “Dumb” questions are really more about when they get asked than what they are inquiring about.

Too often, people make assumptions about products and these assumptions go unchecked. We assume the business model is solid. We assume the market research points to a specific solution. We assume we need to keep specific features in the product in the next version. Dumb questions challenge these assumptions, often at a time in the project when they are most relevant.

Some of the most productive and enlightening discussions I’ve had when working on a project have been as the result of dumb questions being asked. These are often the underlying questions that many people have had but never thought of asking or have been too afraid to ask. “This may be a dumb question, and something I should have asked a while ago, but …” often kicks off a very worthwhile exchange of ideas and assumptions, and everyone leaves with a much better understanding of the context and issues.

I once was in a meeting to discuss a proposed new product. We were talking about the financial objectives and the reason behind launching this product, and had spent about 90 minutes talking about the technical options, business models, sales channels, and integration challenges. All of the sudden it occurred to me that, while we had discussed market conditions and needs that indicated this product would be accepted by customers, we had never really clarified whether this product would meet the specific business goals that were established.

Once I asked the dumb questions — “What is the underlying problem that we’re facing? Is this really going to solve that problem?” — we all quickly realized that this product might meet the customer’s needs but the approach we were considering would not meet the organizational objectives. We quickly regrouped and began addressing that issue as well. Had I not asked the “dumb” question, we would have went further down the wrong path and wasted well more than just the 90 minutes of conversation.

When you as a product manager ask these dumb questions, you also create an environment in which others can ask these types of questions without fear. The best questions about business models may come from developers, the best questions about marketing strategy may come from designers, and the best questions about necessity of features may come from customer support representatives. The more you can get these questions out in the open, the more you will be able to address them to create a better product and get the product development team to have confidence in what they are creating.