Don’t underestimate the importance of admitting you don’t have a clue

Picture the scene, you’re a senior manager expected to devise a strategy to grow / reinvent / save the business. Multiple options lie ahead.

Some in areas you’ve no experience of, some in areas you know are risky – and those are the good options.

At the very least you know enough to know that you don’t know what to do next, but the decision you do make next is considered to be crucial, especially by the people who pay your wages.

You’ve got two teams who can work on it.

The first team are confident they know what to do. Even if they can’t articulate it without defaulting to cliché business jargon, they have the pedigree (and degrees) to suggest their four years at one of the big four amount to more than their Boss suits and ability to draw diagrams using triangles.

The second team are intelligent, able, creative and perfectly pleasant, but also absolutely clear that they haven’t got the first clue what to do.

Most rational managers interested in keeping their job/business afloat/sanity choose option one. However, after nearly 20 years of running my own successful businesses and working at the highest level with some of the world’s biggest businesses, I increasingly believe team two are the best for the job.

Why take the risk? I increasingly believe that the power of not knowing what you’re doing can be the best response in the face of uncertainty. And the one certainty all our businesses face is more uncertainty. 

I think we underestimate the importance and empowering freedom of being able to admit we haven’t got a clue once in a while, and more than that, we diminish its significance in favour of pretending we’ve got the answers.

We need to not just overturn the tyranny of having to have an answer on the spot, and what that sort of panic does to our real problem solving skills. Instead, accept that the greater opportunity lies in realising how our most potent creative and strategic powers are more often unlocked when we’re totally in the dark rather than when we think there’s an obvious way ahead.

In this highly charged moment of not knowing quite what’s going to come next, when making it up, I find it counter intuitive that we don’t recognise intuition. 

Call it what you will but I call it instinct. In business I believe reliable instinct honed through experience is a stronger force than most management consultants textbooks can theorise a model for.

I’m not saying it’s ok to take unnecessary or uncalculated risks, I’d never advocate running in the fog, or being proud to be unclear, but there is a big difference between knowing you don’t know something, and not knowing what to do.

The best business leaders learn on a steep curve, they’ve all grown stronger at the deep end, a crisis sharpens all our skills, and good managers know how to stretch themselves and their team well. These are all manifestations of environments when not knowing is the greatest teacher.

The enlightened business manager might have a poster about failing fast or failing better in their office, but, when it comes to the crunch, when who dares wins, few dare speak the truth, that before the lessons of failure, we’ll learn more, do better, push our selves further if we take the path of least experience, not the path of least resistance.

I’m not suggesting the best in business don’t know what they’re doing every day, of course not, but it is clear the business elite I meet know that they don’t know, what they don’t know and understand every day they aren’t learning, they aren’t pushing their comfort zones far enough either.

It’s not that business management theory, the Harvard Business Review, MBAs, business / self help books, etc, always suffocate the innovative thinking that made you interesting in the first place by shaping you into a pre ordained mould of rapidly out dated business models, but….

I do believe that if we are going to innovate awesome and meaningful new invigorating businesses that change and challenge the world, in the way we need them to, a group of intelligent people who know they don’t have all the answers, but do have some of the right questions, is where we want to start.

Sam Conniff is chairman of youth marketing agency Livity

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