The work landscape has changed. A person’s potential and capacity to learn is more important and far more valuable than possessing encyclopedic knowledge on a particular topic.
In today’s work culture, having in depth expertise is less valuable and has become a distant second behind potential. During the Industrial and Postindustrial eras, a person’s ability to gain employment was based on their depth of knowledge and aptitude at a particular trade. Workers were submerged in their trade from youth, they received intense training and usually performed an apprenticeship before they were considered a “professional” and respected as such. Saying the words, “I don’t know” was an indictment of incompetence.
The beauty of not knowing
The birth of the internet created a huge shift in the information paradigm. Now, information, data and knowledge are literally at your at your finger tips. The impact of the information sharing on every level and subject, which is readily available 24/7, is a remarkably wonderful double-edged sword.
On one hand, things that were privy only to certain people and shared within closed circles is now accessible to all. If you want to know–you can. On the other hand, the amount and magnitude of information available is overwhelming and incomprehensible.
It has become almost impossible to be a true “subject matter expert.” The paradox is that both everyone and no one is an expert.
The shift in information sharing has also impacted workplace norms. Where it used to be frowned upon and taboo to use the words, “I don’t know” in a professional environment, it now has become acceptable and expected.
Today people are hired based on their ability to process information not to memorize it–which is far more remarkable and better use of the brain. Our brains have gone from being storage containers to multifaceted microprocessors.
Your ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, apply and create new information is your most attractive attribute–not your current knowledge base.
Embracing the phrase “I don’t know”
The quicker you embrace the fact that you don’t know everything about anything, the better off you and those around you will be. You will unburden yourself of undue stress at work and you shift your brain into a continuous state of learning.
The value in embracing and saying “I don’t know,” lets you off the hook and helps reduce all of the misinformation pervading our information system. The truth is, your boss doesn’t care whether or not you can produce information on the spot, he or she is more interested in whether or not you can find the correct information quickly and apply it properly. Chasing “I don’t know,” with “but I’ll get back to you shortly,” is the recipe for continued growth, humility, and opportunities…
Chasing “I don’t know,” with “but I’ll get back to you shortly,” is the recipe for continued growth, humility, and opportunities…
The “I don’t Know” Process
Ok. You’ve embraced the fact that you don’t know everything and have mastered admitting it in the workplace without feeling inadequate. Now it’s time to understand how to complete the process and close the loop. Because not knowing is acceptable; failure to rectify the knowledge gap is not.
Now it’s time to understand how to complete the process and close the loop. Because not knowing is acceptable; failure to rectify the knowledge gap is not.
1. Understand and process what it is you don’t know
The first step (after admitting your ignorance on the subject) is to ensure that you understand exactly what information you are being asked to provide. Nothing is worse than misunderstanding what it is the other person needs and chasing your tail down rabbit holes. Make sure what information you are being asked to gather and synthesize and then find out how it should be presented. This is a simple yet critical first step.
2. Find and process the information.
Now comes the part of the process where you gather the necessary information. Ensure your sources are reliable. Read the information and then put it into two categories: What you know and understand and What you need to know or need to clarify further. Make a list of concepts that you need to research more in depth. Clearly defining and assessing the information is the first step in critical thinking.
3. Fill In knowledge gaps
Now it’s time to focus your energy on researching the things you don’t know or can’t articulate clearly. Always work from authoritative and well-known research. Use information from industry experts. Start from an original source such as a research study and then work your way out. Read the abstract first, then find easier to read blogs, articles,
Always work from authoritative and well-known research. Use information from industry experts. Start from an original source such as a research study and then work your way out. Read the abstract first, then find easier to read blogs, articles, books and videos that are based on this founding research.
This will help you understand if the secondary sources are accurate. And it will not only assist you in understanding the information but reading “lighter” materials also assists you with finding the vocabulary and other tools (charts, graphs, infographics, videos, podcasts, etc.) that can help you accurately explain the concepts.
4. Create an action plan
Once you have and understand the information, then it’s time to create a plan of action. Your course of action depends on the initial request. If you are being asked to present the information for knowledge only purposes, then you should plan your presentation method accordingly.
If you are being asked to provide a solution or recommend a course of action based on your findings be sure to use a structured research approach such as the “Five Why’s” or the Scientific Method. Using a structured research method will assist you in making a logical and researched based decision that has passed multiple tests. It also will assist in catching and mitigating flawed logic which is inherent to any decision making process.
5. Talk through potential solutions
Once you’ve identified a few possible solutions using a systematic approach, talk through your research findings and thought process with someone else–your boss or trusted co-worker. Together you can brainstorm potential solutions or assist each other in finding creative and innovative solutions to the issue.
No matter how thorough you are during your research process, you should always seek the input of others. The only perspective you have–regardless of how much research you do is–yours. Seeking the counsel of others broadens your perspective.
Making “I don’t know” palatable
If saying the words “I don’t know” makes you cringe, here are a few alternatives:
- “I don’t have a concrete solution at the moment. Let me gather some information and I’ll get back to you, shortly.”
- “I don’t want to make a hasty decision that we may regret, please give me a few hours to look into this.”
- “This particular situation may warrant a different course of action, I’ll do some research and get back to you by the end of the day.”
These are just a few examples. Of course, you need to modify the language to fit your communication style and work place situation. The most important thing to note in each example are the three elements present:
- An admission that you don’t have an answer.
- You have a plan and are going to research the topic/possible and solutions.
- You provide an appropriate time frame in which you will provide the information/suggested solution.
This approach allows your boss and colleagues to know that you understand the importance of the issue. It also lets them know that you are reliable and are going to work to find the best possible solution in lieu of handing them a half-baked, under-thought remedy which may do more harm than good.
In the end, you actually walk away looking more competent, caring and committed than had you been able to provide an answer immediately.
“I don’t know is not an indictment of incompetence. It is a legitimate, acceptable and more importantly–responsible response when you don’t know an answer.
Your credibility doesn’t lie in your ability to provide encyclopedic knowledge on demand. We have the internet for that. Instead, your credibility lies in your ability to track down, research and synthesize information and provide that information in the proper format to the proper people.