Life at Harvard continues at an unbelievable pace – but it is great! I’m enjoying every minute of it. Today one of the discussions was about a leader who thought he knew what the answer was, but didn’t know that he didn’t really know what was really going on. Hmm, how can you know what you don’t know?

Ask Questions

You can’t of course, but you can protect yourself by being more curious than you think you need to be. Ask questions. Here’s a funny example of what happens when you assume you know the answer and don’t ask any questions.

In the example, the captain thinks he is confronting another ship. He never asked the other person to identify himself, so there was nothing to challenge the way he saw the problem (which was the problem that his staff had called him to the bridge to solve). It was only when the true identity of the other person came out that the captain had “disconfirming” information. In other words, the new information did not affirm what he “knew” but disconfirmed or challenged it.

Good questions to ask all the time, and especially when you think the answer is a no-brainer, include:

  • Let’s suppose something else is going on here.  What might that be?
  • Does anyone think differently?
  • Any question that checks your own assumptions
Download discussion guide

Open-Ended Questions Are Essential

What these questions share is that they are all open-ended questions that invite unpredictable responses. In one of the case studies the CEO thought he had heard from his staff by giving them a survey to complete. However, the survey only had closed-ended questions with no opportunity to write anything in, and the questions dealt only with the issues that the CEO thought were important.

I did a survey for my dissertation and almost every question had closed-ended choices (that makes statistical analysis easier) and an open-ended box where they could explain their answer and add whatever else they wanted to say related to the question. Numerous times the closed-ended questions sounded very much supportive of one side of a debate, but in the open-ended responses many people qualified their answer and it became obvious that opinion was much more divided than the statistics would show.

So, the next time you think you know something, ask questions to confirm that you really know that what you know is right.

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Thoughts on Do you know what you don’t know?

  1. Eric Stolte

    Thanks for these summaries, John. I appreciate you taking the time to share what you’re learning. To be honest, I find myself somewhat disturbed by much of what you’re learning, but I’m not sure yet exactly why. I’ll keep thinking and if anything comes up, will let you know.

  2. John PelloweJohn Pellowe

    Eric, thanks for your comment. For sure let me know what you find disturbing. Those points will be ones to think about and learn from.

    For example, the “Fully-funded…” post included the donor group’s criteria for sustainability for programs they ‘invest’ in. It seems to me that that only works in certain circumstances. There are some things that just never will be sustainable (from earned income), and that’s why we have charity!


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