Working with ‘I don’t know’

How do we work on something when we don’t know what to do? Where do we start? How do we start? How do we keep going?

I had some useful first-hand experience with this earlier this week. Some while back, I’d been asked to do a seminar for a research organisation, based on my talk at the Integrated EA conference last year, on ‘The Enterprise As Story‘. Yet talking with the seminar-host about a week or so before the seminar was due, we decided to change to another topic I’d also suggested, about dealing with the feeling of “I don’t know”. So, to make it more realistic – but also more challenging for myself – I didn’t do any of my usual somewhat-overkill of preparation: instead, I went in to the session deliberately not knowing what I would do.

Actually, that’s not quite true. :-) I’d arrived rather too early in town – having perhaps-wisely made too much allowance for the joys of English weather – and sat in a cafe, quietly panicking about what I’d let myself in for. In doing so, I realised that some of the people there might panic even more if I turned up without any visible plan: so in the last half hour before going back up to the site, I scrawled out this mindmap on a large sketch-pad:

The two-hour session that followed was, in essence, a nice real-time and real-life example of improvisation for the enterprise-architect. :-)  We rambled around most of that mindmap, though also with quite a few contextual examples and side-digressions. And although it’s not ‘complete’ in the sense that a Powerpoint slidedeck would be, it’s probably worth summarising the content there, because it might be useful for others who find – or place – themselves in the same kind of situation.

There are a few items in the mindmap that emphasise the context of this specific research-organisation, but otherwise it’s probably (re)usable as-is. As you’ll see, there are four main sections, and I’ll describe the content of those sections roughly as per the mindmap, but do note that much of what actually happened in the session came up in a much less ‘ordered’ way!

Where I started was “What do I know that I don’t know?” – what information do I know that I don’t have and might need? This was the quick summary that I came up with:

  • What you expect
  • Who you are
  • What (work) you do
  • What drives you
  • What you need to know
  • What you need to know from me
  • What you need me to not know (intellectual-property and suchlike)

The next section I worked on in the mindmap was “What do I know that might be useful here?” – book-references, past-experience and so on, for this kind of business-context:

  • Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigation: “the most important instrument in research will always be the mind of the researcher”
  • experience at another client: long-term knowledge-management; ‘sheltered-workspace’ for research; the real product of the organisation was opinions (not ‘facts’ – but facts to support opinions); ISO9000 quality-system applied to ‘opinions as product’
  • the SCAN framework on sensemaking and decision-making: the Inverse-Einstein boundary (order vs unorder); quantum-shift in tactics between ‘considered’ and ‘real-time’; different forms of knowledge or ‘modes of knowing’; role of tools such as checklists; ‘going for a walk’ around the context-space map
  • possible relevance of some of my other tools and frameworks: Five Elements, Market Cycle, tetradian asset-types, Market Model and anticlients

Over on the right-hand side of the mindmap, a focus more on feeling than thinking, around “Dealing with ‘I don’t know’” – facing up to the fears around “I don’t know”:

  • emotional stress: fear of failure, fear of letting others down, fear of mockery
  • social pressures and expectations (including management-expectations and client-expectations)
  • fear blocks the thinking-process: need to let go of fear to be able to ‘think straight’ and suchlike
  • work with the emotions, rather than fight against them (note: in biochemistry, there’s no direct difference between feeling of fear and feeling of exhilaration – it’s only a difference of interpretation)

(Also relevant here is Peter vander Auwera’s brilliant blog-post ‘Help, I’ve failed!‘)

And down at the bottom of the mindmap, in perhaps even more of a random scrawl, some notes on “Known tactics for working with ‘I don’t know’” – and some themes that arise from that:

  • tactics from improv-theatre: ‘yes-and’, ‘switch the status’, ‘accept and extend’ etc
  • create space for serendipity: “to remember something you never knew, first set out to forget it” (Poincaré story, Kekulé story on dreams), cross-reference to Beveridge examples
  • “diving into the chaos”: role of ritual to create ‘safe-space’; crosslink to concept of ‘the special world’ in the ‘Hero’s Journey’ story-structure
  • physical and organisational architectures to support ‘allowing knowing to arise’: shared-spaces for knowledge-exchange and cross-fertilisation; Noise Level sci-fi short-story (summary on YouTube); social-archiectures for sharing; acknowledging the open-vs-closed trade-off (science/’everyone to know’ vs security ‘need to know, need to use’)
  • dangers of misleading term ‘applied science’: science often as ‘codified technology’; stronger crosslinks between technology and ‘magic’ than between technology and science
  • four disciplines‘ (adaptation from Jung): Artist, Believer, Scientist, Technologist as distinct yet interdependent modes and disciplines; using technology (video/audio etc) to capture real-time content; skill-levels and competencies; dangers of automation relative to skills-development

That’s about it for the mindmap. It worked. :-)

Hope it’s useful for someone, anyway!

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Posted in Knowledge, Power and responsibility
4 comments on “Working with ‘I don’t know’
  1. Reminds me that I wanted to explore my post I am a ChickenBrain deeper. Thank you very much (once again) for sharing.

    Oh, and I might need to publish a post based on my last year presentation at the ITU Copenhagen. You are an inspiration to write more.

    My very own conclusion is to just accept that I know nothing and just do the best in whatever situation I am in. Which leads to not even mindmaps in most cases. I consider a mindmap as a fully prepared event. :)

    • Tom G says:

      @Kai: “I consider a mindmap a fully prepared event. :-) ” – yes, true! (I did say that I made up the mindmap in the cafe, immediately before the session, more because I feared others would panic if I didn’t at least bring something vaguely certain-looking to the party…! :-) )

  2. Nice post. Have faced this too often at the start of a new project, new assignment, new job, new client. Nice to have a model put down which at the very least can act as a panic buster in such situations.

    • Tom G says:

      @Fakhruddin: “Nice to have a model put down which at the very least can act as a panic buster in such situations.”

      Many thanks! – glad it’s useful, though I’d have to admit it’s not really a model as such, it’s not good enough for that! It’s just something perhaps more at the level of an action-checklist, a set of principles to bounce around at the moment of real-time action.

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