The Power of “I Don’t Know”

When was the last time you heard, “I don’t know” in a meeting? Or, “Let me do some research and get back to you on that.” Instead, what we typically are encountering is the opinions of others.

Opinions spur debate because they are based on our own limited experience of the world. When we try to influence from the point of opinion, we are assuming everyone else in the room shares our same life experience or has the capacity to relate to it. They don’t.

Not only are these opinion-based debates ineffective, they are corrosive and time-consuming, eroding trust between team members and fragmenting the brand platform into personal interpretations.

Saying, “I don’t know” short circuits these debates. It creates a void, nothing to push against. It creates this space by stating anyone in the room might be right, but we don’t have enough clarity to make a decision. “I don’t know” calls into question the equation being used, without directly questioning the individual’s math. In this temporary opinion ceasefire, we can take a step back from promoting our answer and discuss how best to find an answer.

“I don’t know” does not end debate but creates a more constructive one by shifting the team away from evaluating the answer and towards evaluating how one came to an answer and why that’s the right approach.

“I don’t know” is so rarely said during these debates because not knowing puts us in a vulnerable place. After all, our job is to know, right? Wrong. Our job is to figure it out. Let that sink in for a moment.

Your job –at every level, in every department–is to figure it out. Your job is to gather, test, learn, discover, unearth and see what happens. The more experience we have, the better we get at this process and the better we get at figuring it out. The reason the beginner’s mind is so powerful isn’t because of beginner’s luck but because the novice comes to the problem knowing they don’t know, and this forces them to figure it out. The only path forward is to gather, test, learn, discover, and unearth, constantly scanning the environment for clues.

“I don’t know” lets everyone in the room off the hook from having to be a wise, all-knowing sage on the mountain top. It frees us to be scientists, questioning the world and conducting experiments to find answers to those questions – sometimes falling on our faces in the process, but sometimes discovering a breakthrough.

“I don’t know” has the power to transform the culture of organizations, exchanging the massive amount of time once spent debating, for time spent researching. That research shifts teams from designing experiences for themselves to designing experiences for their customers

“I don’t know” has the power to build more cohesive teams by steering individuals towards the pursuit of answers that are aligned with the brand’s principles and values, not their own.

The “I Don’t Know” Process.

  1. Listen
    The first step is not to state that we don’t know; the first step is to let the fly. Again, these opinions are insights into the speaker’s perspective, born from their life experience. So let the team put their answers on the table. Ask questions to understand how they came to those conclusions to better comprehend their point of view and approach.
  2. I Don’t Know.
    State in some form, “I don’t know the right answer” or, “I’m unclear about how to evaluate the answer.” Making yourself vulnerable creates permission for others to be vulnerable. But you can’t leave that vulnerability hanging out there, or the opinions will devour this opening to promote their answer.
  3. Zoom Out.
    Disagreement on an answer is a sign of a lack of a clarity further upstream. Either the team is not clear on the objective, the strategy being used to achieve that objective, how tactics are best utilized or the context in which these are being applied. Quickly pull the conversation back from the “answers” and discuss these clarifying elements; the objective, the strategy, the tactics, the context. Again, be vulnerable by saying, “I need to make sure I’m understanding the project (or decision).” Then you can shift the conversation into clarification further upstream.
  4. Design The Path.
    With clarity regarding where the disagreement or confusion lies, the team can then focus on identifying the best path to finding the best answer possible (the right equation). Note, this isn’t determining the perfect answer. This is figuring it out as best you can given the resources available. Unless decisions need to be made immediately, this usually involves research and reporting back to the team with analyses and findings.
  5. Regroup, Informed.
    Information and data is reported to the team and reviewed prior to regrouping to make a decision. With everyone on the same page, working on the same equation, using the same data, a constructive discussion can be had to determine the best answer.

P.S. This post is most definitely a note to myself

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