Knowing what you don’t know — It’s Your Best Strategy
(originally published in Ideas to Action: the GIFT Blog)
“Do not block the way of inquiry” was American philosopher, scientist and all-round genius Charles Sanders Peirce’s first rule of reason.
We think Peirce’s maxim should be among the first rules of leadership learning. It is closely related to “knowing what you don’t know.”
How can leaders inspire others to follow them down the “road less travelled” unless they themselves are well-equipped to make informed choices about which route to take?
Big companies do not exist in a vacuum. If you’re on the inside however, long periods may pass without an urgent need to interact with “externals.” From regulators and suppliers to customers and communities there are myriad stakeholders who impact or are impacted by decisions taken in the office. Thus, a much deeper understanding of the dynamics at play in the outside world is critical for sustained success.
At a time when quarterly results drive strategy (shouldn’t it be the other way around?) where is the long-term, big-picture thinking?
Despite all the talk about the world getting smaller (usually attributed to globalisation, connectivity and ease of travel!) it remains a vast, diverse, complex and rather messy place. Home to 60 per cent of humanity, an abundance of cultures and countless different ways of doing business, nowhere is this complexity and diversity more pronounced than across the 48 countries east of the Bosphorus that make up Asia.
Leading effectively and uncovering new opportunities in this part of the world isn’t possible without knowing what you don’t know. And as Peirce rightly pointed out this state is only achievable by unblocking the way of inquiry!
But what does that really mean?
A broad (and deep) knowledge of the world outside our companies, industries and home countries should be the aspiration. It offers the opportunity to synthesize the wealth of information now at our disposal, acquire the foresight necessary to define big goals and plot an informed course towards achieving them.
Knowledge is one of the three core pillars of our framework for Purposeful Engagement. Alongside communication and empathy, we see it as a prerequisite for effective leadership.
We have become familiar with the common reasons why people find it difficult to expand their knowledge — these answers tend to recur when we raise the question on our leadership learning programmes.
Obstacles to knowing what you don’t know broadly fall into one of three categories. Consider them roadblocks on the highway of inquiry!
- The Filter Bubble
Time flies, but not as fast as you might think!
With busyness now being touted as a status symbol it’s not surprising that many of us think (and some broadcast) that we don’t have a moment to spare, let alone 30–60 minutes which could be devoted to learning every day.
Deep down though we all know that time is not the real issue. Prioritizing is.
What it boils down to, as this timeless (pun intended) economist article from 2014 underscores, is that once time is financially quantified we tend to become overly worried about using it ‘profitably’, both inside and outside of work. As time’s monetary value is something most companies understandably impress upon their employees, it’s no wonder then that executives fight a daily battle trying to balance their work, family and leisure time.
Yet, allocating time for ‘learning’ in the leadership context doesn’t have to mean taking a formal class (online or real world). Nor do you need to force yourself into learning something of no interest to you. Picking up a newspaper and NOT skipping straight to the entertainment or sports pages, watching a documentary, reading a biography or simply learning about the world through an informal chat with colleagues from other countries are all valuable knowledge-enriching activities.
Establishing a regular reading habit is essential in this regard. We think Brain Food from Farnam Street is a great place to get inspired about the benefits of reading.
If you want to Connect the Dots, Stay Curious
Any parent can attest to the fact that we all start life as highly curious creatures. We spend almost every waking hour as babies and then children rummaging, exploring and learning from our mistakes. As we grow older and “wiser” though that innate curiosity has a tendency to taper off. We know how the world works, or at least we think we do. We become comfortable in our routines and lose interest in learning new things.
Many executives we work with admit to reading only their own industry publications, attending only their industry events, and mingling with (you guessed it) only their industry peers. Such habits lead to a blinkered view, not just of the business landscape, but of the world at large.
- No company operates in isolation
- Multi-sector, cross-industry insights can spark inspiration and fresh thinking
- Actively seeking out information about other industries can yield significant rewards
The Filter Bubble is the nemesis of real knowledge
This one probably requires the least explanation as it now features prominently in the public discourse since the rise of social media. The term Filter Bubble was coined by social entrepreneur Eli Pariser to describe an online world where algorithms ensure users are only exposed to news, information and opinions which serve to reinforce their own worldview. It is a well-documented phenomenon essentially isolating us from anything that could irritate or disturb us, thereby causing us to leave a website (and its paying advertisers).
Given that it feels like some days we spend more waking hours online than offline, the filter bubble is an extremely worrying and dangerous phenomenon.
But, the filter bubble isn’t just online. It’s everywhere.
Next time you’re on a business trip and holed up in a hotel room for the evening, try watching Al Jazeera instead of Fox (or vice versa) and you may be surprised at what insights you can glean. And next time you vehemently disagree with a conference speaker’s argument, make an effort to start a conversation with them during the tea break. You might just learn something in the process!
Devoting time to “learning”, staying curious and open-minded about what information and interactions could be relevant for you, and consuming information from a wide range of sources (especially those that challenge your biases) are all key to expanding your knowledge base.
Your 6 minutes of attention and reflection has no doubt already started to unblock your way of inquiry.
7 Easy Steps to Knowing What You Don’t Know?
- Stop thinking that it’s cool to be busy — make time for personal development
- Prioritize your own individual course of learning
- Establish a vigorous reading habit
- Seek out books, magazines, movies and content that comes from a different industry, political view or ideology than yours (even those you disagree with)
- Strive to regain a child-like curiosity
- Have lunch with someone different (other department, industry or sector). If you are in business find a new friend in government or civil society and learn from each other.
- Talk to GIFT about joining one of our upcoming experiential leadership learning programmes.
GIFT’s executive education offerings can help you know what you don’t know: