Is Your Knowledge Holding You Back? Rethinking the “I Know” Mentality

Every day, we must make decisions, solve problems, make connections, advance the process and, hopefully, learn from the experience. We are taught that, in order to succeed, we need to be omniscient, to have every answer before a question is even asked. How often are leaders lauded for their ability to have the answer seemingly instantaneously?

I’m a CPA and, once upon a time, I was big on “I know.” It comes with the territory. I was expected to know. In reality, it can be hard for us not to know, not to have answers. Having been trained through years of education to be prepared with solutions, the lack of an immediate response or, perhaps, no answers at all can leave us unsettled.

Experience has taught me, however, that, while in many situations “I know” can come in handy (I know how to get there from here, I know how to run that machine, etc.), in more fluid, interactive situations, the capability of knowing seems to fade in its power.

As a re-engineering professional, I come face-to-face with individuals with the “I know what to do” mentality so often that it’s predictable. The inherent issue with those with the “I know” approach is that their answers can be based on limited knowledge of the subject. They have reached a conclusion without having tried to understand the full situation.

Instead, if we use our historical knowledge in a way that opens us up to learning and exploring — not condensing everything down to having an immediate answer — we can expand our opportunities exponentially. This capability of wanting to know more becomes critical and essential for success. By relying on historical perspectives and assumptions, we miss the reality of the situation.

As Peter Drucker once said, “Knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”

Perception rules over fact and, since we may only see one or two perspectives, we formulate opinions — “I know.” Over the years, in crisis work, we have seen that every person and every department will have their own reasons why things went wrong and each has a whole plan to fix it. A better tactic is to release the need for an answer and to reach out to others to collaborate about what is unknown, while learning from each other, realizing that other perceptions and information are present. We don’t know what’s unknown. Warning: Don’t accelerate to immediate solutions.

I’ve taught classes for management-level professionals wanting to become partners in their firms. One topic was a challenge and an opportunity: effective decision making. In this class, each executive was given various situations where they needed to determine what they thought was happening and what might be done. As we discussed these, they would become uncomfortable, then really uncomfortable. They had to know answers and fear struck if/when they couldn’t find them. The feedback was that, in school and work, there always had to be an answer. So, when there wasn’t, the executives were firmly outside of their comfort zones and became visibly upset.

I would sit down in the middle of the group and be present with them, open to whatever they needed to discuss. I listened to them to understand what was driving them to have answers, how it was impacting them personally to become distressed. I wanted to come alongside them in order to take us to another level of understanding that having answers is not the approach. We had compelling conversations.

Even more challenging for them: many times, there was no resolution — the best might be to honor what had transpired. However, the more we talked about how there are many ways to approach situations, not just from the “I know” vantagepoint, the more aware they became of alternative solutions.

Recently, I worked with a successful company that wanted more, but they were set in their business approach. When I wanted to dialogue with their customers, I was shut down. With perseverance, they came around and I did connect with several customers.

My discovery was priceless. Customers provided information on their new product development. The salesmen would huddle in a small group of their peers to brainstorm options on manufacturing those new products — then take suggestions for consideration back to their customers. It was almost a “research and development” capability they were offering to customers. As we explored more, we found that this value-add was a key success factor but not standard operating procedure.

The owners were surprised that they had no idea this was happening. In the end, it was what they didn’t know and even didn’t want to know that made them more successful.

In our work, we focus on what happened, what’s happening, what it means to get to the next step — before applying historical perspectives and knowledge. When help is needed with challenges, we explore perceptions about the situation: What areas of the situation do we want to understand? What don’t we know? Then, we get to work.

With more insight, we determine how to move the situation forward, based on needs of the situation.

Let’s give everyone the chance to thrive at a higher level and mitigate risk of mistakes, failure or worse. Situations have the information we need. What we need to know makes the difference.

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