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

Cut ‘em back

Take the dying limbs, the diseased branches, the dried up shriveled stems and chewed leaves and cut ‘em all back. Cut ‘em back till you have the seasoned, proven limbs and branches with a few strong new growths heading in just the right direction. That’s how you support Nature in producing a bountiful harvest.

Some years, when rain and sun are plentiful, we may let things go wild, allowing for new growth to become established. Other years, the tree tells us it’s been all too much and it needs to hunker down and carefully select how limited resources should be put to use. If we listen, if we allow for a step back after two forward, She will provide. If we fight it, if we push for two steps forward, then four, then eight, despite the weather, ignoring the rain or drought, we’ll see the consequences of our imposed imbalance.

These are the laws of nature. We are provided all the signs to diagnose and time our push forward or pruning. The underlying skill this all requires, the one farmers have cultivated for generations, is observation. Farmers know what to look for, where to look for it, and they have the conviction to take decisive action when the data points to clear answers, whether they like those answers or not. Because for thousands of years, the survival of their business has depended on it.

Understanding   

Understanding is seeing clearly what is on the surface and grasping the underlying meaning. Understanding leads to insight because we are able to see a person, place or thing more completely, to see it for who or what it truly is, as well as for how it’s perceived.

Insights and understanding fuel one another, each providing fertile ground for the other. This symbiosis occurs naturally once the mind is trained to shift from its default narcissistic state to being present, truly listening and inquiring.

Our approach.

Our approach to a project is guided by the state of the organization: the people, processes and systems that generate the brand experiences which, in turn, cultivate brand loyalty (or hinder it.)

People
Organizations are living, breathing organisms, made of living, breathing people. A simple but a powerful notion when an organization must evolve in order to grow. This is why we work with individuals throughout the company from leadership to the front lines. We work in one-on-one, group and company-wide settings to provide clarity. Clarity of purpose. Clarity of place. Clarity of path.

Processes
Organizations prove Aristotle’s assertion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Processes create the synergy that fuels this outsized impact. We collaborate with individuals and teams to design and implement these processes, creating linear pathways for information and actions to flow smoothly through the organization and trigger the needed downstream action or effect.

Systems
Organizations have the ability to scale beyond their physical size by leveraging IT systems. When sourced, architected and implemented with the end in mind, these systems amplify the impact of a single individual and increase speed of processes. We collaborate with internal teams and vendors, working cross-functionally, from procurement to launch to align systems with people, processes and the path forward.

This approach requires us to customize projects to fit the organization and leadership’s desired rate of growth. It requires us to go deep, roll up our sleeves and work hand in hand with your team to build your future state, from the ground up and inside out. This building of foundations from deep within the organization cultivates an individual and collective sense of purpose, autonomy and, if supported, mastery. This allows us to step away while remaining intimately connected to the DNA of the organization – leaving our clients autonomous, but never alone if our advice or services are required.

Our purpose.

Our purpose is growth.

Yes, growth means increased sales, profit, margin, market share, etc. However, we believe those traditional growth metrics can be better realized and sustained by the personal growth of the individual, teams, and the organization as a whole. A growing business challenges the individual. It challenges our knowledge, skill set and wisdom, as well as our ego. It challenges leaders to lead better and doers to be more efficient and effective. It challenges the infrastructure the organization relies on to operate, pushing on every system, process and relationship until it builds resilient strength through evolution or breaks. A growing business challenges us to push beyond our comfort zones, giving us opportunities to choose new paths forward, choose how we will react, how we will make decisions and how we will view the game board in front of us.

This internal growth of the individual and the collective growth of the organization is contagious. It draws talent and passion, creating fertile ground for individuals to come to do their best work and achieve their own prolific growth. This creative and expansive force is felt by the customer, the users of the experiences birthed by the organization. The energy is infectious, exuding from every experience and interaction, spreading to an exponential number of individuals through each product and experience produced.

This is the potential power of a brand. This is how brands affect individuals, lead movements and change the world. This is our purpose: it is the work we are here to do inside our own organization and for yours.

If it exists, it has a purpose.

Whether a plant, animal, person, situation or brand, this is true. Understanding someone’s or something’s purpose gives us insights into what to do with it. How to treat it. How to utilize it. How to sustain it, grow it, strengthen it, support it, join it, evolve it, motivate it, share it.

When we are able to see people as individual purpose-driven machines, and brands as purpose-driven collectives, we can unlock what they have to offer the world.