As a young boy, my hero was race car legend, Mario Andretti, and there’s a quote of his that I’m a big fan of as an adult:
"If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough."
This truism of racing; is also true of modern personal and professional life, but it sounds a little different in the knowledge worker environment:
If you always know what you're doing and how to do it, you're likely falling behind.
The blinding speed of technical, informational, and societal changes affect every facet of our lives, and there's no sign of it letting up. We can’t possibly have a handle on it all, yet we must be willing to race through this "cloud of unknowing" in order to remain relevant and competitive in the marketplace.
What’s true of the marketplace is also true of our mental space. Knowledge workers must learn in order to grow, and learning always begins with not knowing. When was the last time you found yourself doing something important that you had no idea how to do?
A while back I was part of a project where we were tasked to come up with some innovative ways to improve the work we do for clients. We were struggling at one point as we discussed next steps because of the lack of structure around the project and the fuzziness around the presentation we would be preparing for senior leadership. When it was time to wrap up the call, our facilitator/leader ended by saying that she was delighted with the uncertainty and struggle we were experiencing, and that it was a strong indicator we were on the right track.
It caused me to question my own ratio of knowing versus unknowing work that I do. I'm convinced we all need to check our comfort level from time to time and ask ourselves how often we don't know what we're doing, and whether it's often enough.
Take a look at your current list of projects, and ask how many are pushing you into unfamiliar territory in terms your skill or knowledge set. You know - the ones that give you that "how in the world am I going to do this?" feeling?
There's a difference between a trip and an expedition. On a trip, you know where you're going and how you'll get there. You book the travel, accommodations, and itinerary in advance. You have a map, so you rarely need a compass.
With an expedition there's always a purpose in mind, but not as much certainty about what it will take to get there. It's uncharted territory. You have a compass, but no map.
Plenty of our work is clear-cut, and predictable. For example, a sales plan involves a territory to cover, a process for getting to yes, and a goal to hit by years end. Everyone knows what to do in order to succeed.
Most of the time we go with what we know, but what happens when what we think we know isn't so anymore?
When the client changes the way they shop and buy?
When the competitor comes up with a game changing product?
It's the work that's not so clear cut that makes all the difference, because we can't afford to wait until what we know isn't so.
We have to risk not knowing. Of course we do our homework and make calculated risks, but we don't calculate or intellectualize our way to knowing. We have to be willing to act and embrace the tension of, "I don't know," or "I have a plan, but I'm not sure if it will work."
How much of your work is predictable?
How likely is it that your working assumptions could stop working?
What kind of an expedition could you begin, and enroll others in, today?
You could start by launching a project (expedition) to create your own game changing product, or find out why and how the customer is changing their purchasing process and how you can accommodate it more effectively than your competition.
It's ok not to know. In fact, it's the best place to start!
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