Obvious questions

Each time I’m in a conversation, reviewing a presentation, or reading an email, and something obvious seems like it’s not being addressed, my initial reaction is to think that others must already know the answer. This must explain why no one is raising the issue.

I’ve discovered that a small fraction of the time this is indeed true and you simply weren’t there when the issue was being discussed. This could be that you weren’t physically at the meeting or that you had mentally checked out. The first suggests that others decided to meet without you and the second that you weren’t paying attention. Since both reflect badly on you, you think that it’s best to be quiet and not raise the issue.

However, a much larger fraction of the time, the reason why something obvious isn’t being addressed is either because no one wants to admit that they don’t know the answer, or because they know the answer but their self-interest benefits from concealing it.

In the first case, it’s beneficial to discuss the issue even though you may not arrive at an answer. Simply by laying out everyone’s views on the table and debating, you’re likely to make progress towards the solution by coming up with a framework to address the problem together with assumptions which need to be tested to arrive at the answer.

The second case is more dangerous. If someone knows the answer but prefers to conceal it, this is a strong signal that the information will impact your view about the problem to the detriment of the concealer. This makes it even more important to ask the obvious question.

Situations where something obvious isn’t addressed occur often when the parties involved have asymmetric information. This is why they take place frequently when entrepreneurs talk about their startup to VC’s.

If you’re a VC faced with this situation, you need to ask the obvious questions. Give the entrepreneur the benefit of the doubt that it’s a case where they don’t want to admit that they don’t know the answer, rather than a case where they’re concealing information. If you discover that they’re concealing information, you may want to give them a second chance. But if the same thing happens again, it’s best to walk away.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you find that you’re concealing information often, you probably want to question the merits of what you’re doing.