“Black Hole Words” and the power of asking stupid questions
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First of all let me say, I seem to only take jobs that I feel super unqualified for, and the number one thing it has taught me is that it is actually an extraordinarily powerful skill to ask the “stupid” questions that everyone else is afraid to ask. Stupid questions have the ability to create clarity in places where people didn’t even know there was confusion.
Often times when you’re sitting in a meeting and feeling confused, you think it’s just you. “Obviously I missed something and everyone else knows the answer already, that’s why they’re all nodding...”
Turns out that 80% of the time when you’re confused, everyone else is also confused. And EVERYONE is too scared to stop the meeting and ask the “stupid” question.
“Are we all on the same page about what our goals are?”
“What’s the purpose of this meeting?”
“Do we need to make this decision right now?”
“Did we define that word that we’ve been debating for 20 mins?”
That last one is my favorite. Because it’s like a sneaker wave in business. It seems so obvious — of course everyone knows what that word means — but it turns out that lack of shared definition of words wastes a huge amount of time inside companies.
I have had a lot of jobs in a lot of different parts of the tech world — different types of businesses, different sectors, etc. Each job has caused me to have to go through a ginormous learning curve — to learn the basics of a whole new sector and to ask a LOT of dumb questions. One of the things it has taught me is that each industry has lots of words (and lots of acronyms). When you first start out, you feel stupid for not knowing what the word means, so you look it up after the meeting… It ALWAYS turns out that each word has about 10 definitions and no one agrees on what it actually means. In every industry.
Welcome to “Black Hole Words”.
Having this experience over and over again led me to start talking about Black Hole Words. To me, these are words that are commonplace in a given industry but everyone has a slightly different definition of them. You can have a whole meeting and if you don’t define the word, you just wasted an hour of everyone’s time. They suck all the meaning and consensus out of a room, out of a business, and out of a company.
These words are EVERYWHERE.
I first discovered Black Hole Words when I was working on rewriting the careers page at Facebook in 2008. It was long before we were comfortable using the word Hacker and I was trying to learn from words that other companies used to describe their culture. At the time, we competed with talent primarily with Google, Yahoo!, and Dropbox. I had a major “whoa” moment when I realized that Dropbox, which was something like 30 people at the time, and Yahoo!, which was maybe 10,000 employees, both used the words “impact”, “fast”, and “fun” to describe why you should come work at each company. I realized that if two such different companies at such different stages could use those words then... the words had lost all meaning.
That moment led me on a search for words that meant something AND on a quest to ensure that we defined the words we used when we talked about Facebook. Completely indirectly, that quest ended in an amazing blog post written by Paul Buchheit about what it means to be a Hacker. That post was a specific and beautiful definition of the word Hacker that made Mark and others finally comfortable with using that word to describe who we were.
Overall, that experience also made me aware that so many people use words and never define them. They assume others have the same definition and frankly, that is almost never true.
My learning continued when I joined Quip, a SaaS business, knowing absolutely nothing about SaaS, sales, etc. When we started our Chief Marketing Officer search and Jamie Tilotta Green (the best exec recruiter in the world) sat me down and said “What do you mean by Marketing?” I was confused. But as Jamie helped me realize, there are many types of marketing and thus, many types of marketers. Jamie and other amazing recruiters have taught me that it’s one of the easiest mistakes to make in recruiting: assuming everyone has the same definition of Marketing, Growth, Product Management, CTO, etc. I now feel confident that when executive hires fail, the most common reason is that the CEO didn’t take the time to specifically and clearly define what they were looking for at the start. They just assumed that one CMO is the same as another CMO.
This isn't to say that each word has one definition and you just need to find it. Rather, each word has a different meaning at different companies (and to different people). For example, what “Product Management” means at Microsoft is completely different than Facebook or Pinterest. That means that people that have held that title at different companies literally have different skills and strengths. So before you go hire a Product Manager ask yourself, what does Product Management mean at your company? What do you value most in your PMs? Which companies do you think you are most similar to in terms of what you value in PMs? Once you've answered those questions, you're ready to start your search, you know which companies to source from, and you've just saved yourself a bunch of time and possible mistakes in your hiring process.
Recruiting is a great place to find easy examples of how powerful it is to stop and ask questions before you charge forward. All of these things are Black Hole Words: if you don’t start by defining the word, you are wasting everyone’s time, and you’ll probably hire the wrong person.
One of the most annoying things about working for me (there are many) is that I pause conversations a lot and say “what do you mean by XX?” This phrase is exceptional, simple, and under-used in my opinion. It is my way of trying to get rid of Black Hole Words.
A candidate says, “I just want to work on strategy.” My question, “What do you mean by strategy?” (hate that word, as some of you know). An employee says, “I feel like we’re losing our culture as we scale?” My first question, “What do you mean by culture?” A CEO says “I’m hiring for a COO.” My question, “What do you mean by COO?”
You get the point.
But just in case, here’s some over-used and under-defined words that drive me nuts:
Each of these words is used all the time in most tech companies. And each word has a different meaning in each company. My point is NOT that you shouldn't use the words! The point is simply that you always need to make sure that everyone is working with the same definition.
Next time you're in a meeting and you feel confused — it feels like everyone is agreeing but you haven't defined or agreed upon something basic — either
(a) be bold and stop the meeting and ask: “did we define what X means?” Or “does everyone except me know what we mean by X?”
(b) if that feels too scary, then after the meeting, ask the question to the most senior person that you're willing to ask. If it turns out that no one knows the answer then take it as a data point that you SHOULD have stopped the meeting :)
I have gotten used to it, but I know it can feel scary to ask something that feels like a stupid question — “can you define that very basic term for me?” — particularly if you are more junior. You can always preface your question with “Sorry if this is a stupid question, but...” in case that makes you feel more bold. Some people will tell you that phrase sounds weak; I'll tell you that the most important thing is that you get comfortable asking questions so do whatever it takes.
I love this quote that someone shared with me recently:
"Once you have learned to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know." - Neil Postman
I love the quote because honestly, at this point, being willing to ask stupid questions is one of my super powers. It started with defining Black Hole Words but, at this point, I'm confident that asking questions is one of the things that makes me a great operator. I strive for shared understanding between everyone on the team and a lot of times that requires stopping the meeting and saying “sorry if this is a stupid question but...”
So... take a risk today and stop the meeting to ensure that everyone is working off the same definition of the word. Be bold and ask your boss or your CEO the question that seems obvious yet the answer is still unclear. Like I said, stupid questions have the ability to create clarity in places where people didn’t even know there was confusion. Similar to what the quote says, once you know how to ask questions — and once you are brave enough to risk feeling stupid — it is a superpower that no one can take away from you.
Good luck out there.
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A black hole word I was constantly on the lookout for in my previous career (military planning) was "ensure." The ultimate (no-actual-meaning) verb - e.g., ensure [X condition] occurs.
It was a great flag of poor analysis, logic, critical thinking, or communication and served as one of my barometers on how much deeper did I need to look or how much more skeptical - and how many more clarifying ("Molly-") questions should I ask.
Great post - thank you!
I love this. I have so many questions.