I Don’t Know: The Phrase You’re Scared to Say and Why It’s Hurting Your Business

I Don’t Know

Let’s talk about the phrase, “I don’t know.”

Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes. – Peter Drucker

A few months back, Newman and I took a look at how to have a great first meeting with a prospective client and how to create better monthly reports. Both articles advocated for a process-based approach to web design, marketing, and improvement. And academically, this seems to be a no brainer. Obviously, having a process is better than not having a process.

When a business has a process for success, they identify problems to fix, solutions to those problems, and develop SMART goals to achieve.

But I’ve noticed something again and again with businesses: little or no process.

Why is that?

How can it be that so many small businesses are run without following a process? Didn’t they do a business plan?

Maybe everybody got loans before the market crash in 2007. Or maybe they’re just maxing out their credit cards. Or maybe they’re faking-it-till-they-make-it.

The Problem

There’s a dark heart beating at the core of this problem and it comes down to one small phrase. It’s a three word phrase that has it’s polar opposite in the phrase “you’re right”. (How good does it feel to hear that? Seriously.)

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]The phrase is, “I don’t know.”[/highlight]

You hear this phrase from the learners in your environment. When a programmer spends time banging their head against a problem for solutions, “I don’t know how to do that but…” and then they go on to say what their process for trying to find the solution.

This is how process and IDK are linked.

When I worked in the music business I had the opportunity to sit in on the weekly marketing meeting at RCA. In that meeting, everybody talked about themselves and their artists. Nobody reached out. There was no social cohesion. Everybody was doing awesome and had all the answers.

Now look at them. When the music industry hit the metaphorical iceberg, those in charge were incurious about how the markets were changing and instead tried to legislate their own profits. Nobody in power said “I DON’T KNOW!”

Or the corollary to IDK, [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]”I’m so scared…”[/highlight]

That’s happening in your organization. Today. Right now. Just on a smaller scale.

There are people who are in positions of power who will not admit what they don’t know.

It sounds dumb but their logic is pretty rock solid. It goes something like this:

“I value my career more than I value the success of this company and so [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]I will not do anything that exposes my weaknesses.[/highlight] This will make sure I have a long career.”

And who could argue with that? It’s true that business is cutthroat and competitive and that exposing weakness can be a dangerous thing for one’s career. If at that RCA meeting there had been one guy who was talking about the issues he and his artists were having and if he sought out help from the other product managers, he would be doing his artists a service but there’d also be a measure of respect lost for not being able to handle their own workload.

The Solution

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]What’s needed is a work culture of curiosity, discovery, learning and implementation.[/highlight]

And if that’s too much to ask for, it at least needs to foster an environment of betterment rather than an environment of getting-it-done.

The idea is simple (at least in theory). Take a look at everybody in the organization. Distill the essential skills for your project. It could be design skill, programming skill, communications skills, marketing skill, and people skills. Rate everybody and plot it on a radar chart. You know what a radar chart looks like, right?

I do now.

The chart will show points of overlap and points of uniqueness and will suggest who should be in charge of what.

I know that’s a pretty mechanistic way of seeing things but this is really meant to be used more as an thought experiment then meant to be a real activity to be undertaken.

What becomes obvious is that if somebody isn’t admitting their weaknesses, then their shape on the chart will be inaccurate. The guy insisting that he’s “got it” ends up being the guy who ruins it. It’s not malevolence, it’s self-preservation gone awry.

What’s really interesting is that a lot of times, the person who won’t admit their weaknesses is the business owner himself.

It’s like those chefs you see on the Gordan Ramsey show “Kitchen Nightmares”. You know the ones. At the beginning of the show they’re confident that Gordan will love his food.

Gordan always hates this guy’s food.

(Fair warning: The video is NSFW.)

And this guy always takes it personally. There’s always a cutaway where the chef calls Gordan a hack. He just can’t believe that it might be the food that’s keeping people out of the restaurant. “I cooked at/for [insert name of prestigious place or chef here]! Don’t tell me my food isn’t any good!”

After Gordan breaks them down and then has his restaurant gnomes redecorate their shops and he gives them a new POS system and updates their menu they see the light, become reinvigorated, and follow his process.

Whenever they do the follow up shows it’s always funny. Those that kept Gordan’s processes are always in business. Those that waver typically aren’t. But when you see a business failing, you can bet that somebody in that building is not admitting that they don’t know what they’re doing. And it’s because they don’t want to get fired.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]Process only emerges when you can admit your weaknesses.[/highlight]┬áBecause when you admit your weaknesses, you realize you need other people. And when you need other people, you have to create structure so that you can work together. And that structure is known as “process”.

So when you see resistance to implementing process, what you know for sure is that somebody in the chain of command is faking it and hoping nobody notices.

It’s also why companies hire the wrong people for important jobs. For instance, SEO should be integral to your whole internet strategy but too often its outsourced to a company whose only contact with you is what they read on your website. But the SEO guy who walks through the door demanding process has the effect of trying to sell V8 at a frat party. He’s just killing the buzz.

Maintain High Standards

The worst part of failing to admit “I don’t know” is that it lowers the standards of the company. And the key to achieving goals through process is to execute excellently. And the only way that can be done is if everybody is playing their strengths. It not only showcases everybody’s individual talents but also creates a cohesion among the group. This allows those standards to be met and kept.

So shout it loud and clear. I DON’T KNOW! And then go find somebody in your organization who does and take them to lunch.

Good things will come out of it.

One comment on “I Don’t Know: The Phrase You’re Scared to Say and Why It’s Hurting Your Business

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