Thursday, August 16, 2007

I Don't Know. Really.

Sometimes we don't really know the answer but pretend we do. In fact, sometimes may be an understatement. Not knowing the answers -- or having enough data to have an informed opinion -- but pretending we do is not the foundation upon which to have a discussion to help yourself or someone else arrive at a more informed opinion.

This is particularly important with complex worldly issues (say, geopolitical problems that have the potential to create wars). Few of these types of issues have truly black and white answers. The "truth", such as it is in these cases, often lies within carefully selected -- yet still meaningful -- nuances that can only be honed after significant study and analysis.

Best case, we come off silly. Worst case, we, well, kill a few people. Thankfully we're all adaptable and like to better ourselves. So we can get better at all of this.

Get out there and vote but become truly informed first -- don't just sound informed to those that already agree with you. Be able to have an honest opinionated discussion with folks that don't agree with you and still walk away with an understanding of where they are coming from. If you can't do that, you probably don't know what you're talking about -- and should get back to reading, researching, and thinking before opening your mouth.

Anyhow, the excerpt (along with watching lots of West Wing episodes) that inspired this post (even though it was talking about managing software projects) is below:

True Factors

Next time someone tries to pin you down for an exact answer to an unknowable question — whether it's for a deadline date, a final project cost, or the volume of milk that would fit in the Grand Canyon — just start by taking the air out of the room: say "I don't know."

Far from damaging your credibility, this demonstrates the care you bring to your decision-making. You're not going to just say words to sound smart. It also levels the playing field by reframing the question as a collaborative conversation. By learning how exact your estimate needs to be (and why), you can work together to develop a shared understanding about the true factors behind the numbers.

—Merlin Mann, creator and editor of

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