Organizational transformation

How to Know What You Don't Know

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Don't generalize your expertise.
  • Build partnerships that help clarify areas that are complimentary to yours.
  • Get more comfortable with saying "I don't know."

When you look at the things that didn’t go how you had hoped, it’s usually not because of the reason that you’d been planning for all along. It’s usually something that hits you out of left field.

Just as the long tail has taught of that there is an almost inexhaustable list of micro-markets within a single large market (many of which we would have never imagined), likewise there is an almost infinite list of additional critical success areas for any organization-many of which are off the radar completely.

If you can only know what you know, how do you prevent yourself from ending up somewhere you didn’t want to go? Three things come to mind that might help:

1. Don’t generalize your expertise. 

It can be tempting to extend your expertise in one area into another that may require vastly different skills. Sometimes you may not have a choice. If so, it might be good to ask yourself a few questions: 1) Am I aware of the information upon which assumptions are being made?, 2) Is the information I should be aware of something that is accessible to reason alone, or is some experience or expertise necessary?, and 3) If the situation requires some specific experience or expertise, do I have it?

2. Build partnerships. 

A building is created by separate and complimentary skills. From the architect to the glazier and everyone in between. Seek out experts in areas that have the potential of helping you better understand and plan for areas outside your domain.

3. Get comfortable with “I don’t know” (or get super curious). 

From a young age we’ve been conditioned to believe that not knowing something is bad. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not condoning any kind of pride in ignorance, but more a humility that even with all of our knowledge and experiences there may be time where it makes more sense to listen, understand and ask a lot of super curious questions.

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