Magazine article Management Review

What My Goldfish Don't Know

Magazine article Management Review

What My Goldfish Don't Know

Article excerpt

At a seminar on quality, the presenter pulled out his wallet and removed $100. "This goes to whoever asks the stupidest question today," he said, implying there were no stupid questions. One participant did come dangerously close at 4:45 p.m., when he asked if the presenter was ever going to give away the money.

Quality requires an environment where you can share what you know and what you don't. The main problem: fear of looking stupid. This started in grade school. You were supposed to know things, like the fact that Bismarck was the capital of North Dakota, but also, in its spare time, a chancellor of the German empire. Being chancellor was like an extracurricular activity.

Later, in business school, you were supposed to appear knowledgeable during case discussions, which were run by Socratic method. Socrates was a Greek philosopher who devoted himself to inquiry. He denied knowing anything, especially about North Dakota. "Never heard of the place," he'd often say.

But case discussions were more like debate than inquiry. One case involved a new director of human resources who couldn't decide what to do first--the whole company was a mess. "He should fix the mail room," said a student. "It could be done fast and would have an impact." Then a second student spoke up: "I used to work in HR and that's the last thing you'd ever want to touch. Only a flunky from personnel would fiddle with the mail." The first student turned red. He looked ready to make a run for the nearest exit, drop out of school and join some esoteric organization, like the Foreign Legion, or the Postal Service.

Later we learned that the new director had in fact fixed the mail and had been very successful.

Inquiry is hard to do. If Socrates worked for a modern corporation, he might still ask questions and profess ignorance, but he'd probably be tense:

President: How do next year's sales look? Socrates: How the hell do I know?

President: When do you expect to complete your forecast? Socrates: What's it to you?

It's bad form not to know, even about the unknowable. Consider the stock market. On a TV program called "Wall Street Week," Louis Rukeyser interviews prominent investment pros about where the market is headed. I always expect a vague response such as, "The Dow will probably move around a bit, possibly vacation in Florida for a few months before settling down in Central America. …

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