I don’t know

I don’t know.

There – how hard was that to say?

For some people, seemingly impossible. But as an enterprise-architect and a generalist, I have to be able to say it often – very often, in fact. Because the fact is that I don’t know most things – not in fine-detail, anyway. Nothing like as well as the specialists would. And I need to be honest about that not-knowing – responsible about that not-knowing – otherwise everyone could be in trouble.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, being clear about what we know defines the boundary of our competence, but being honest about what we don’t know is the boundary between non-competence and incompetence. And I treasure my non-competence, my not-knowing: it means that there’s always something new for me to learn. That’s what makes this type of work so interesting, so worthwhile: the anarchic uncertainty and self-disruption of not-knowing can be challenging at times, for sure, but there’s always something new to learn.

It’s like reading a detective-novel: sure, we could jump to the end and find out straight away whodunnit – but where’s the fun in that? Much more interesting to not-know, to explore the story, the small clues, the missed-connections, the subtle uncertainties. Pretending omniscience right from the start kills our engagement in the story as story. And reality is that most real-world stories don’t have the simple closure of a detective-story: the story doesn’t end with ‘the culprit’, it continues on, always open-ended, always something new that we don’t know.

Being honest about not-knowing pays off in other important ways, too. As a consultant, I might be seen by front-line staff as ‘the guy from head-office’: but by being open about my not-knowing, it changes the implied status-relationships, reminds those people that they are important and that they do have knowledge that’s worth knowing. Often that’s the only way that an executive-team can find out what they really need to know about what’s happening in their own organisation.

Our being honest about not-knowing also makes it safe – or safer, at any rate – for others to admit that they don’t know either. When everyone’s locked into a pretence of certainty, a pretence of ‘all-knowing’, it’s easy for dangerous assumptions or even more-dangerous known-errors to become embedded as pseudo-‘facts’ in decision-making. But if everyone’s locked into an “Of course I know!” game, someone has to go first in admitting that they don’t know – and that’s one of the most valuable services that any outside consultant can offer.

A specialist does have to know what they’re doing, of course – otherwise it’s probable nothing would get done. But it’s usually a knowing within quite a narrow domain – with a lot of sometimes unacknowledged not-knowing outside of that domain. Good generalists know how much they don’t know: that’s often the key difference between a good generalist and one who’s only pretending.

There was once perhaps a time where someone could know just about everything that was known. But that certainly isn’t the case now: no-one can possibly know everything. In many ways, no-one can be certain about anything.

So why pretend that we do?

I don’t know: do you? 🙂

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