The Power of Not Knowing

When was the last time you said “I don’t know” in a business or organizational context, with the idea that your honesty would actually get you somewhere?

Memories can be considered dormant or stored expressions of energy. Thoughts can lead us in previously unimagined directions. So perhaps ‘knowledge’ is actually the power in not knowing, as well as realizing that what we don’t know matters more than what we think we know. It is the practice of constantly becoming ‘knowledgeable’, or, developing the ability to send and receive knowledge, rather than having to own it or store it.

Traditional paradigms have taught us that in order to survive, we must position ourselves as progenitors of knowledge. That we must know stuff, and know more than the next guy or gal. That ‘success’ is somehow predicated on acquiring knowledge, owning some form it, and holding onto a knowledge domain for dear life.

If relationships with friends and loved ones are any indicator of how we think we know stuff (and then often realize that we don’t), then perhaps it’s time we also flipped the script on how we do business as it relates to knowledge.

So let’s call bullshit on ourselves. Well, for the moment at least.

Across her three seminal books, leadership expert and Silicon Valley luminary Liz Wiseman asks us: “Is there a danger in knowing too much?”

She follows that open question with another, even more powerful one: “How does what we know get in the way of what we don’t know?”

The realities of knowledge acquisition, distribution and retention are very different in a world in which the past, present and future are constantly being rewritten. Look no further than the Internet and the social web for overwhelming evidence of the shifts in how we acquire, distribute and retain information, or what we construe as knowledge.

As such, we might want to reframe the very important questions Liz has offered up to now ask: “What do we actually know, and, what might it be that we don’t know or might not know which matters? What can we do about it?”

What if we could all accept the precept that what we actually know is dwarfed by what we don’t know, and that’s actually a good thing?

To build from the example of an Internet economy, we are conductors of information that shifts the idea of control away from what’s ‘ownable’ and towards a dynamic of shared distribution and responsibility. To take it further, the idea isn’t necessarily to stake claim to a domain, but to unpack it such that the next best inferences and outcomes can occur.

As the graphic above implies, there are some interesting alignments — human attributes, to be more specific — with all that we don’t know.

While what you know is considered knowledge, what you don’t know is or can be a heightened form of awareness. It’s analogous to knowing what not to do. It’s the kind of foundational learning that enables us to make better choices and create better options for ourselves.

What you think you know or what you might know, take on forms of reason, imagination, and sometimes, outright delusion. In the same way we might intuit a scenario or imagine an outcome, we can also delude ourselves into thinking that a present reality doesn’t exist (such as a failing business). Whether it does or doesn’t is also tied to the awareness of why what we might know actually matters.

What you want to know and what you don’t know that you don’t know (the unknown unknowns) take on forms of curiosity and discovery. Wanting, doing and seeing or understanding become critical factors in shaping a new reality around what we don’t know. As such, we become wiser as we learn about what we didn’t know before, or what we still might not know going forward.

Seem obvious? It probably isn’t, considering how often we repeat the same mistakes based on what we think we know.

To be intellectually honest, there are plenty of examples that run counterpoint to the construct offered here. Google’s recent announcement to change its search ranking algorithm from site visitation variables to ‘fact-based’ merit indicates that we are already facing an information tug-of-war and knowledge management paradigm between deterministic Internet models and a truly open web. At a human level, Google also hires its leaders based on highly predictable and arguably automatonic attributes, part of the logic being that these kinds of variables make for better, smoother, and far more profitable operations.

Be that as it may, many of us have long operated, as individuals and groups, under the premise of being hired based on what we know and who we know, but the reality is that it’s more about how we think and who we can connect on account of that thinking.

Let’s look at this in terms of various business and organizational archetypes.

Starting with who we think we are as individuals, we are most often faced with the prospect of acquiring or having knowledge, or, being aware of the reality that we don’t have it.

There is, of course, great learning in this duality, and lots of wisdom to acquire in the humility of realizing that there is a fine line between what we know and what we don’t know.

Startups tend to be based on foundational knowledge, hunches about what that knowledge might mean going forward, and a never-ending curiosity about what it is an individual or group wants to know in terms of validating assumptions about a market opportunity.

Companies (loosely defined as SMBs around longer than five years, mid-caps and the Fortune 1000) tend to stay within the sphere of foundational knowledge, assumed knowledge and the prospects that what they know might actually represent a market reality. Most companies don’t acknowledge what they don’t know, and their appetites for wanting to know more or different things tend to trump the discovery of things they didn’t even know existed or were possible.

Markets are even more interesting (or odd, depending on how you choose to look at them). We spend oodles of time and effort trying to create them, understand them, game them and dominate them, and while these efforts can be realized through various business lenses, the reality is that speculation still rules the playing field. We essentially learn as we go, even if we can algorize predictions or leverage certain scenarios through technology (such as ETFs). And despite what we want to know about markets, or what we don’t know that we don’t about them (such as how they are rigged, when they are rigged), we still embark on huge curiosity and discovery curves that provide opportunities to learn as individuals and collectives.

What all of this might tell us is a very fundamental truth: ‘Success’ is relative to the realities of not knowing.

This certainly applies to me, my colleagues and my partners. In fact, our success is almost entirely predicated on embracing this reality. Even more so, on a personal level, I can’t function well and create abundance in business opportunities without honing my abilities to think holistically, as well as developing an acumen around connecting the best people and skill-sets to deliver the best working services or products, wherever and whenever possible.

While maintaining an integral role in the management and operations of three companies (as well as several others I advise) might seem fairly unorthodox, I’m also noticing that it’s becoming less so, simply by virtue of the way business, markets and operations are becoming more horizontalized. In other words, I represent a growing sector of people who are experiencing increased leverage because of what they don’t own or gate keep, and rather what they cultivate across networks. So in essence, ‘not knowing’ stuff is probably more advantageous than having to constantly acquire knowledge and lay various claims to it. As the packaging of knowledge becomes more commodified, perhaps this is an opportunity to create scenarios and business ventures that focus even more on leveraging the power of networks, rather than the domination of markets.

So is Google ‘off the mark’, so to speak? Not exactly. Most tech fanatics and so-called business gurus would yell “Blasphemy!” at the mere thought of calling Google out in this way. Simply put, Google just chooses as a company to maintain a type of command-and-control type structure for managing and operationalizing knowledge, because it can. For now.

But for the much longer tail of companies without Google’s footprint and market cap, there is a much bigger set of realities to consider.

Think about it.

We don’t necessary produce more, we produce more effectively.
We don’t necessarily hire more people, we source them more effectively.
We don’t necessarily own distribution channels, we optimize and manage them more consensually.
We don’t necessarily create solutions to provide answers, but to generate more open questions.

So, what we know is really more a reflection of the certainties we face — and the questions we hold — in not actually having to know anything. The signifiers are what we observe in the business and organizational mix: more ideas, more options and more open questions.

Granted, a CEO with a challenging run rate or a corporate manager in charge of a P&L sheet and who faces serious operational hurdles is less apt to consider those open questions. Yet, he or she is, by default, beholden to the same dynamics: If you can’t acquire it, you need to find a way to share it and redistribute it. This holds true for everything from information, to skills development, to supply chain management.

Hub-and-spoke models have existed for many years, in many ways to handle the associated trends and cultural shifts we see with networks of all kinds. But the difference between now and yesterday is in how we learn and how we discover what’s really possible.

Here are some considerations in your exploration of how to balance what you think you know with what you probably don’t:

Work on how you think and act. (Build muscles to take on the unknown)

In the same way we might talk about change but lack the muscles to actually activate it, knowledge works in a similar way. You need to exercise your mind, break from routine and get uncomfortable. Activities like chess or meditations that actually clear your mind of noise are great ways to build up your knowledge muscles. The way you act will become the reward for taking on this perceived risk.

Conduct experiments in the real world. (Unlearn what you think you know)

My good pal and management consultant, Stu Heilsberg, has talked a lot about this, and made the point clear in his book “The Answers Are Outside the Building”. What Stu describes as ‘ecosystems’, are also safe environments in which we can stop guessing and start realizing what’s really going on in a market. Company divisions and startups alike would have much higher success rates if they simply took their assumptions to the ground and formulated insights while actually in the trenches. It’s amazing how many don’t.

Bake it, don’t fake it. (Test what you want or need to know)

This is a really important one, because the majority of businesses I’ve seen struggle or fail happened because their stakeholders were faking it in the hopes of making it. Don’t do it, because sooner or later you will get caught with your pants down. Instead, bake up the solution by considering alternative ideas, test them, and then decide how and when you’d like to pivot the business.

Always defend the open question. (Not knowing provides new opportunities to lead)

I talked to a CEO the other day who said that his comfort level with not ‘having all the answers’ is increasing. Unfortunately for him, this realization has come rather late in his company’s lifecycle and he faces the very real prospect of being replaced. Nevertheless, he is learning how to lead better, and more specifically, he is learning how to lead from behind. This will undoubtedly give him a lot of leverage, whether he stays with the current company, or starts another venture.

Be who you really are, so you can build or execute on what you really want. (Not needing to know allows you to do what you want)

Another CEO I spoke to shared some of the opportunities she’s looking at, but expressed concerns that none of them were ideal because she’s not sure that “these are things she really wants to do”. So I asked her what she wants to do, like, in the world, and she replied: “I want to help people find their creativity”, and in the same breath, admitted that she didn’t know what that might look like. So we sat down and mapped out scenarios. She’s already looking at different opportunities in domains in which she doesn’t have deep expertise, although they are areas to which she has transferable skills. More importantly, she’s being true to herself and her higher intentions.

Don’t be afraid of not knowing. Use it to your advantage.

For more information on unique ways to unlearn destructive business behaviors or how to break old organizational patterns, please feel free to visit or drop us a note at LUMAN.

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At 42 years young, I am a serial entrepreneur and former corporate executive with over two decades of diverse experience. I’ve been directly involved with 50+ ventures, worked for 3 multinationals, started several companies of my own, and have exited twice. Yet, I still know relatively little in this rapidly changing business and market landscape. I do, however, build platforms and tools to help organizations get a handle on what they can learn so that they can perform better and profit more sustainably.

More importantly, I am on this planet to serve you.

Thank you for reading.