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Bennett’s blog – #7 In praise of annoying people with stupid questions


Carole Bennett, CEO

Well, to say this has been an odd and difficult week is something of an understatement.  I don’t think that is unusual, or specific to those in schools, but my Garmin watch is telling me that my stress level is higher than normal this week.  I trust it completely.   It confirms what I already suspected.

This has been a week which has taken us from lockdown into the early stages of planning to inch our way back into some semblance of normality.   It is clear that shutting and breaking things is much easier than putting them back together.  Brexit now seems easier than planning the piecing back of society, balancing health and wellbeing against the dangers of the economy collapsing.  So we are planning hard at DSAMAT Towers, looking at guidance, information about ‘the virus’, our knowledge of teaching and learning – but most of all, thinking about how we can keep everyone safe – pupils who are entrusted to us by their parents and carers, and the staff that choose to work for us.  It is an enormous responsibility, and one that none of us carry lightly.  And so we shouldn’t.  Or we shouldn’t be doing our jobs.

So how will we move forward?  How will we make the right decisions?  Well, bizarrely, I think the answer will lie in us asking stupid questions to each other.  Being prepared to look like an idiot. 

Although it might seem counterintuitive, and that it is better for me to say that I wish to surround the Trust with supremely confident and self-assured experts, I think this would be a mistake.  Most of the breakthrough moments in organisations I have worked with have come from someone who started their sentence with ‘this might be a stupid question but…what if/why/is that really true?’.  And often, these questions have come from unusual places, someone from outside that area of expertise or who has not been ensconced in previous decision making. 

This should not surprise me really.  There is interesting research into ‘confirmation bias’ which shows that people have a tendency to seek out data or information that backs up their beliefs or ideas, and to disregard any information that flies in the face of the things we already think.   It isn’t something we plan to do, it is a natural human response, because we prefer to see things that fit our view of the world.   Which is why I agree with my Garmin stress number this week.  The danger of that is, of course, that we can miss things that don’t fit with our world view, or don’t fit our plan.  And right now, this would be very dangerous.  If there is a hole in our plan to keep children safe, I need to know it.  Whether it slows our work down or not.  Because getting this wrong is unthinkable.

Someone asking a stupid question, can take enormous bravery.  You have to be prepared to look an idiot if everyone else knew the answer and you missed it.  So to some extent, you need to feel very comfortable with the people you work with to do it.  But brave people, prepared to look silly, have saved me from wasting thousands of pounds, creating inefficient organisational structures and have also helped create successful organisations, cultures and companies by improving an original plan. 

Throughout the week I have had the pleasure of working with incredible people, who are committed to our mission and bring with them a range of different opinions, skills and talents.   I have no doubt that it is only by using this combined expertise, from education (all phases), the community and business, that we will charter a safe way through this mess.    And what I need them, and everyone, to do is to keep asking us questions.  Kindly if you can (please, especially at the moment), but never ever stop checking if things don’t feel right, or asking something that you think is obvious, and somebody may have asked it before.  Agreeing is easy and popular, joining in is a doddle.  Politely differing actually moves things along.