February 21, 2018

Do you know enough to not know?

Woman reflectingHow much knowledge do you need to have before it feels OK to say you don’t know?

Seems like a paradox, doesn’t it?

If we know quite a bit about something, we probably have a good idea just how much we don’t know. And we have some authority.

If we don’t know that much, often it seems we need to state what we do know—to gain credibility, mostly.

So it can seem a wise thing when we don’t know.

That may mean we have quite a bit of knowledge.

…and are worth consulting.

Are you a model of not knowing?

Group working on a projectOr do you always give an answer even if you’re not sure?

One of the greatest gifts a leader can give their team (and themselves) is to show that it’s OK to say you don’t know, or at least it’s much better to say you don’t know than to pretend you do.

Here’s the benefit…

When we accept we don’t know, we open ourselves up to new data and the learning we need, and we ensure our decisions aren’t corrupted by false information. Model that and we’ll create a culture of transparency. Pretend we know and everybody’s feedback loops get confused, including our own.

It sounds so obvious, and yet our egos tend to get in the way.

For some, the “Italian Flag” method (from Patrick Godfrey and others) can help. Traditionally, a judgement call in a review, for example, might be seen as having two outcomes: OK or not OK, go or no go, green or red. Add-in white as a possibility and we have: OK, not OK, and don’t know, and of course, the colors of the Italian flag —green, white and red. And we have the chance of uncovering uncertainty.

That’s a technical approach.

At the human level, it’s simpler… The words “I don’t know” will do.

How do you model not knowing?

I’ve decided to make available the notes (6 pages) from a talk on leadership I gave recently. These include specific insights into how to get organisations to learn and change and increase their performance. You can get a copy here…