​“This may be a stupid question, but…”

Mar 21, 2018, 8:37 AM

There’s no better question than a stupid question! High performing teams reveal themselves in the way team members work towards better mutual understanding.


As a coach, I often meet new agile teams and even SAFe trains (a team of agile teams). My first touch point with the team is usually an agile event, a sprint planning or a SAFe PI planning. These events offer me a great opportunity to observe team members doing their thing and cooperating. Naturally I want to quickly get a pulse of how the team is doing so that I can figure out how to best help them improve.

When making my diagnosis, one of the things I listen for are stupid questions. Mind you, the questions I look for are not stupid at all. The name derives from the fact that when posing one, people often start "This may be a stupid question, but...". In fact, these questions are often ground-breaking because they force important but hidden assumptions to surface.

The reason people start their question apprehensively is because they sense there is a valuable piece of information buried here, but at the same time they feel they may be expected to know the answer already and fear they will look stupid for asking. The funny thing is that often it turns out the person who finally airs the question isn’t the only one missing the piece of information.

For me as the coach observing the conversation these questions have another meaning.

I silently applaud every stupid question I hear, and if I don't hear any, I know there's a lot of work to be done.

In a gelled, high-performing team you hear these questions all the time. That's because the team members have trust in each other. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so they don't need to try to appear more knowledgeable than they are. A mature team also strives to create a common understanding before taking action even when it requires a lot of effort, as they've realised it's the fastest way to get things done right in the long run.

When a group of people are put together as a new team, these things are not in place. Trust doesn’t just magically appear, it takes time and effort. Some groups never grow into a high-performing team if they’re left to their own devices, as there often is constant pressure to concentrate on everyone's "real work".

Also, surprisingly many software professionals haven't experienced a high-performing team, so they don't even know what they’re missing. Not to mention it's only natural for people to want to look good in front of their peers. This can lead to silos of knowledge and bottlenecks inside the team. This results easily in poor quality and slow progress in both getting the work done as well as developing as professionals and a team. Eventually it brings about loss of motivation for everyone involved.

An experienced Scrum Master or an Agile coach can help establish the ways of working as well as the team atmosphere so that high performance will be achieved quickly. Stupid questions are an important tool for them, too. They will not only help the team to get the actual answers, but to show example, kickstart productive conversation and build the culture of trust and openness.

Also, a good opportunity to ask some stupid questions is a SAFe for Teams course. Give your new team a headstart!



Kati Laine is a Lean-Agile Coach at Nitor.