Derp Ops -- The blog of Jesse Keating

A computer, bike, and climb nerd living in the Pacific Northwest. I do cloudy things with computers, currently at GitHub.

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3 June 2014

Breaking the cycle - It's okay to say "I don't know".

by Jesse Keating

While listening to a recent Freakonomics podcast, I learned that from childhood on there is programming to teach us that it is better to have an answer, even if it is wrong, than to not have an answer at all. Why this happens is not fully understood, but the consequences are becoming more apparent. Maybe my upbringing was different, but I've never seemed to have a problem with stating that "I don't know". But I have ran into people who always seem to have the answer, even if it is wrong.

People in the business world are no exception. There often can be an expectation set, particularly for people in more senior positions, to be experts in our fields, which to some means always having an answer.

Far too often though, we don't have an answer. Our skill isn't in knowing all the answers, our skill is in being able to discover the answer. It's knowing when to ask for help, where to get that help, and how to sort through data to find a solution.

Stating that "I don't know" is not an admittance of failure. Instead it is an invitation for collaboration and discovery. It is the very nature of science and the Scientific Method; starting with an unknown, research to form a hypothesis, test that hypothesis by experimentation, analyze the data and form a conclusion, then communicate the results. Science works when we start with the unknown and journey to the known. The door is open for others to provide ideas and research to the table. Differing opinions are welcome and debated.

When we skip passed the "I don't know" stage and jump straight to an answer, particularly when practicing "fake it until you make it", any differing opinion is viewed as adversarial. This creates conflict rather than collaboration. More effort will be spent to entrench on the wrong answer just to hold up the illusion that one has all the answers. Any evidence that does not support the already chosen answer will be ignored or discounted.

In these situations, a wrong answer asserted with authority, is far more expensive than the answer of "I don't know" and the subsequent period of discovery. Good money and time will be thrown after bad, just to make the wrong answer work, or to find ways to blame other things from preventing the wrong answer from working. This creates a very hostile work environment and does not foster collaboration.

Speaking of discovery, the only method to to learn new things is through feedback. Feedback often comes from the process of trail and error, or experimentation. When it is okay to be wrong, it is also okay to make mistakes and errors. This leads to much clearer data and better understanding of the problem at hand. The ability and encouragement to try new things, even if (and especially if) they fail is a fantastic tool for learning, and ultimately for discovering the best answers to a given question.

In many ways, the ability to admit not knowing the answer to something is a valuable trait, one that should be celebrated, encouraged, and cultivated. An environment should be created and maintained that fosters this behavior. Encourage trail and error. Celebrate failures as data about what doesn't work and use it as data to measure what does work against. The rewards will be many.

I won't claim that this is the best way, I just don't know. What I do know is that organizations I've been a part of that have embraced the culture of discovery have been more successful and more pleasant to be a part of than those which haven't. I encourage those I work with to not be afraid to state "I don't know". It's impossible to know everything about everything. Together we work to find answers to the unknown and the journey is just as important as the solution.