Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”