ᾰ̓́γνοιᾰ – The state of not knowing or perceiving
In my earlier piece Exploring Mysteries: a future of work superpower, I proposed that future leaders will need to be able to recognize those challenges for the future of their business which might be seen as mysteries as distinct from puzzles.
For example, a mystery for many business leaders currently might be: ‘How can we anticipate the changing nature of our customer base so that we can transform our market offer?’ or from a more internal people perspective: ‘How can we create an organizational culture that aligns the values of our business with those of our people?’
The reason I call these Mystery Questions is there is no one source to access for the solution. Textbooks may point to theories and consultants might offer expert knowledge but your own business situation is unique. However, the attraction of the expert can be quite alluring.
I joined a webinar recently which was delivered by an expert consultant under the heading ‘Competency Frameworks; what is the point?’ I was drawn to this billing assuming we might explore the future relevance of a long-held common assumption that all job roles should be deconstructed into a system defining knowledge and skills required for optimum performance.
As the session unfolded, I realized we the audience were colluding with the expert as he galloped through several slides explaining how he had answered various questions his clients had raised over the years.
He showed a list of big-name clients and then promoted his book and asked if there were any questions. I asked ‘What is the question you don’t know the answer to?’ and the expert paused then replied ‘Well if I don’t know it how can I know what it is?’ Then time ran out.
But that was my point. If we could all suspend the ‘expert / novice’ game for a while and work with our not knowing then maybe we could make some new discoveries. I was interested in exploring questions for which there are not yet any answers, such as:
- How can we define and measure performance for a workforce that is never co-located?
- How do we define competencies when most job roles are changing shape at an increasing pace?
- How can current competency frameworks help us identify the leaders for future roles?
It’s hard to make a switch from the roles we either assume or are attributed with such as expert, practitioner, or novice. And if we do step outside of our role then it causes discomfort for those around us. If you break the rules of the game, even if they are unwritten, you are likely to be excluded.
It happens in the school playground and in the business classroom, Zoom room or board room. And if you work in a culture with lots of experts (for instance the UK civil service recognizes its staff comprises over 100 professions often providing expert services), the idea of a named expert saying ‘I don’t know’ carries as much risk for that SME (subject matter expert) as it does for the non-expert to question upwards and possibly ‘out’ them for not knowing.
The importance of being ignorant
But what if we consciously leave our ego, prior knowledge, and expertise at the door and go into our meetings in order to work with our ignorance?
Well, that is what Nobel prize-winning research physicists did at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge in the 1930s. These were the architects of the atom, discovered the neutron and identified the electron.
Under the leadership of Ernest Rutherford they met weekly with the instruction to confirm how their research was not going as they had hoped and to describe their ignorance, and even trade it with others.
We know about this is because a young research fellow who was there from 1932-5 was Reg Revans who subsequently developed his theory and principles of action learning and applied them in business and public services as industry was facing transformational post-war challenges. He said when we are operating at the leading edge of change and there is nowhere to go to acquire pre-existing knowledge we should focus on asking insightful questions and we must learn by doing.
As Aristotle said, ‘that which we must learn to do, we must learn by doing’.
How true this is of our global experience of working through and beyond the pandemic, despite the urgent cries for solutions from the experts. The breakthrough came when national leaders admitted they did not have the answers, they did not know when they would have them, but they would connect the best brains from science, medicine, academia, and social science to share their ignorance and take considered action from which came learning and solutions.
Comparing being expert with being positively ignorant
|Being Expert||Being Positively Ignorant|
|Use when||Puzzle which needs to be solved is clear||Problems to be tackled is messy|
|Mindset||Hunger for knowledge||Curiosity, suspending judgement|
|Skill set||Having Knowledge and communicating it||Asking insightful questions|
|Tools/methods||Seminars, lectures, e-training content, manuals, programmed instruction, presentations, flowcharts||Action learning, hackathons,
|Learning Focus||P (Programmed knowledge), training, teaching||Q (Question), learning|
|Conditions||Stability, slow change||Rapid change|
|Where theory fits||Theory before action||Inquiry before theory|
|Fear Factors||Fear of challenging the expert (for the non-expert), fear of being found out (for the expert)||Fear of being seen as ignorant, fear of not making a valuable contribution|
|Problem solving approach||Deductive||Inductive|
|Currency||Cleverness acquired through knowledge acquisition and experience||Wisdom gained through insighftul questioning|
|People orientation||Self, person, personality, task||Others, collaboration, process|
|Predominant thinking Style||Convergent, solution oriented||Divergent, exploratory|
|Time orientation||Past, track record, proof||Future|
Let’s take the recent discussion UNLEASH had with sustainability and webinar expert Anthony Chadwick about his visit to the COP26 summit in Glasgow.
What was noticeable to me is whilst he is billed as an environmental expert, and so he has my attention, he is also appropriately non-prescriptive in his response to the big questions that governments and businesses face regarding sustainability, greenwashing, green marks/standards, and environmental, social and governance.
He is not claiming to have the answers, but he has proposed some of the challenges and questions that organizations should be tackling. I suggest these might be tackled by deliberate distinction between discussions from a position of expertise or from a position of positive ignorance, à la Rutherford at the Cavendish.
In the world of organisational, professional learning and leadership development the expert’s book may be helpful so long as the body of knowledge remains relevant for the problems we face today and tomorrow.
When a seismic shift such as the global pandemic occurs, suddenly much that we have come to know becomes redundant. What are we left with? The ability to ask insightful questions, to inquire and to learn closer to the action.
- How hooked are you on expertise, either yours or that of others?
- What is it that is failing in your work that leads you to an insightful question?
- With whom could you trade your ignorance?
- How psychologically safe is it for people in your organisation to admit they don’t know?