Is Fear a Factor?

A metric to help you assess your organization’s ability to learn

Erika Hall
Dec 5, 2019 · 3 min read

It’s pretty trite to say the world is constantly changing. But it’s also true. For any business, basing decisions on outdated information or the wrong information, creates tremendous risk. So, being able to learn continuously at every level and act on that information is critical.

As of this writing, business organizations are made up primarily of human beings. So an organization’s willingness and capacity to learn depends on that of the individuals within it. And the biggest barrier to learning is fear—fear of looking like you don’t have the expertise to do your job. (A lot of what gets labeled arrogance is just fear wearing louder clothes.)

This is why expressing knowledge in quantitative terms is so popular, even when that isn’t appropriate or useful. Measurements offer the illusion of objective certainty that descriptions lack. A stat (like say, NPS) lets anxious people off the hook for relying on mere human judgment in a way that might invite uncomfortable challenges. Sure, sometimes what you need is a measurement, but too often any information expressed in other than numerical terms is dismissed as anecdote.

Fighting this primal and frankly irrational urge to flee from richer, more contextual information has led to a lot of frustration. Many designers and qualitative researchers have failed at many points to make the case for qualitative data in honest attempt to contribute to greater shared understanding and better decisions.

So, maybe it’s time to stop fighting. Maybe the way to create enthusiasm for learning in all its forms is to give the people want they want—a number. So, in that spirit, I have a new metric for you. The formula goes like this:

For what percentage of people in your organization is it safe to say “I don’t know” in front absolutely anyone else about any topic?

The answer to this question is your organization’s continuous learning quotient or CLQ. The reasoning is that in order to learn, you need to first admit ignorance. So, the greater the capacity for doing so, the greater the capacity for learning. It’s that simple. Think of this as a way to quantify psychological safety if you like.

The lower the cumulative perceived freedom to not have answers, the greater the likelihood that the organization as a whole is running on false confidence. This not only creates a huge amount of exposure—it’s exhausting. All that mental energy devoted to making up answers instead of asking questions is not productive, and it’s anti-collaborative. Often, once a question is out there, it can be very quick to answer it. Knowing things—storing information in your head—tends to be vastly overvalued. Life is so complex and answers have such a short shelf life these days. Having the right question at the ready is far more powerful.

I bet a whole lot of companies have a CLQ of 0, meaning there isn’t a single person who feels safe admitting their ignorance in front of everyone.

That is a terrible environment for problem-solving, and leads to bad solutions to non-problems making it out into the world. Everyone assumes that everyone else knows for a fact it’s the right course of action.

When you celebrate questions, it makes finding out so much faster. And this has to start at the top. If you are a leader, make a point of saying “I don’t know” often in front of others. And respond supportively to those who do.

Now ask yourself, what’s the CLQ where you work? Who is safe admitting ignorance and why them and what questions are OK? Think about where fear of appearing uninformed might be introducing unnecessary risk, slowing things down, or creating toxic competition to be proven right.

Once you know the value of not knowing, it only gets better from there.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.

Erika Hall

Written by

Co-founder of Mule Design. Author of Conversational Design and Just Enough Research, both from A Book Apart.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.

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