If you think you know everything … you don’t

“I don’t know!” To me, those are some of the most exciting words in the English language. When we say them or hear them, there’s an opportunity for some real learning and/or discovery. Where would we be if our ancestors had decided they already knew everything?

As powerful as those words are, we seem to hear them less and less. Maybe I’m fortunate to be surrounded by genius and just don’t know it or appreciate it.

For instance, should we be in Iraq? Almost everyone claims to know with certainty one way or the other, and some are quite vehement about it. Even so, many of those who claim to know have never been to the Middle East or seriously studied its varied cultures, its history, military strategy, terrorism, national security or other related subjects.

Yes, they read newspapers and watch news channels, so they think they’re “informed,” but should they feel qualified to be making such decisions? In fact, knowing all this stuff might not qualify anyone to make a decision, but it might get one a seat at the table to enlighten other qualified people and learn from them as well. This is how the best decisions are made – collaboratively, discussing with the right people.

Iraq is a complicated issue. The real experts aren’t always sure of themselves, so I guess I shouldn’t feel badly about not knowing.

Remember when they were building the Seabrook nuclear power plant? There was a lot of controversy. The demonstrations made the national news. Someone asked me if I thought it should be allowed to open, and I said, “I don’t know.” He went nuts, “How could a guy like you not have an opinion?”

Good question. I had nuclear physics in college, so I actually understand something about what they were doing. I read the books on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and know something about radiation poisoning. Still I didn’t have enough information to “know” what we should do.

If we continue to burn fossil fuels at increasing rates, we are certain to poison our environment, and of course there is global warming and all those other issues. If we can use nuclear power relatively safely, it could provide part of the answer.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any “objective” information on the issue. The stuff from the Clamshell Alliance was tilted to support their point of view, and the stuff from the power companies supported the nuclear point of view. No doubt, the truth was somewhere in the middle, but just where depended on a few factors that seemed to be missing.

What got me was that people who couldn’t even spell nuclear knew for certain whether or not it should open.

Repeat after me …

Of course, many of us bring similar prejudices and attitudes to work. We just “know” what our customers want without ever asking them. We “know” how to make our employees more productive, but it never seems to work. We already “know” how to reduce costs, and although it’s easy to do in the short term, long-term costs have a way of escalating as a result of our short cuts.

When offshore operations are more competitive than ours, we “know” it’s only because their labor costs are cheaper.

In March, Hewlett-Packard hired Mark Hurd as CEO to replace Carly Fiorina. He announced he would spend the first few months speaking with customers, employees and others. He even sent a general e-mail that read in part: “If you have any ideas or suggestions on how Hewlett-Packard can serve you better, please e-mail them to me.” I applaud him; the last thing HP needs is another CEO that seems to “know” everything.

When’s the last time you said, “I don’t know?” Most of us would readily admit we don’t know everything; it’s just tough to find a subject we’re willing to publicly say, “I don’t know” about.

Repeat after me, “I don’t know!” Now, do your homework – go ask. Get a few of your colleagues to do the same. Sit down and discuss it and see if you don’t make better decisions.

This could be just the thing to put your company on the fast track.

Ronald J. Bourque is a consultant and speaker from Windham. He has had engagements throughout the United States as well as in 12 nations in Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 898-1871; fax 894-6539; bourq@att.net; bourqueai.com.

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