Dare to Know What You Don’t Know
One of the biggest growth barriers that business owners face has nothing to do with weak sales, sloppy strategic planning or lackluster personnel. It’s a psychological hurdle: knowing what you don’t know.The ability to recognize holes in your knowledge — and find ways to plug them — propels your business. Otherwise, you might see yourself as a jack-of-all-trades and repeatedly take on duties for which you’re unqualified. Making decisions when you lack understanding or familiarity with the issues can lead to disastrous results.
It sounds simple: Admit your weaknesses and address them. Yet when events unfold at breakneck speed, chief executives of young companies may feel that they lack the luxury of time to sit back, assess the situation, recognize their knowledge gaps and fill them.
Overcome the obstacles
What makes it so hard for founders to confront what they don’t know? For starters, they grow so accustomed to improvising that they assume they’ll learn whatever they need to know by doing. They assume part of running a growing business is rendering judgments without having all the answers.
Have you fallen into this trap? See if the following statements sound familiar:
- I’ll never have all the information I’d ideally like to have, so I need to do my best with what I know.
- I don’t have anyone critiquing my performance every day. There’s no one around telling me, “You don’t know enough about this. Learn more before you plunge in.”
- Launching a business is a leap of faith. I’m busy drumming up excitement in our future. Obsessing over what I don’t know isn’t going to help us grow.
What’s more, business owners cherish their independence. They may reject unsolicited input from others, especially if outsiders try to tell them what to do or how to do it. And unless entrepreneurs schedule periodic meetings with a mentor or advisory board, they may operate in a vacuum and lose perspective on their own strengths and weaknesses.
Self-confidence is a prerequisite for building a business. But too much confidence can convince you that you know what you’re doing when you really don’t, causing you to stray far from your field of expertise.
Another obstacle is the temptation to assume you can muddle through on your own. Telling yourself, “I can get by for now” or “I can figure this out myself,” prompts you to accept your limitations without attempting to patch up knowledge holes.
Even if you accept your knowledge gaps, you might not want to dwell on them because it makes you uneasy. Feelings ranging from misguided pride to flaring anxiety can lead you to forge onward rather than taking the time to confront unknowns.
Quiz your employees
To help identify your knowledge gaps, tap into your employees’ expertise to become more familiar with the inner workings of your business.
Begin by asking workers, “What do you need to know to do your job?” Sit with them at their desks and ask them about:
- The processes they’ve adopted.
- The systems they use.
- The knowledge they draw upon.
Then compare what they know to your understanding of what they need to know. You may find that employees’ jobs have evolved in new and surprising ways. Expect to come away from this exercise thinking, “I need to find out more about … ”
Also ask employees, “When it comes to working at this company, what do you wish you knew more about?” This question encourages them to share their knowledge gaps, which you can help fill. By exchanging insights and information about company operations, you’ll gain a stronger sense of how you can educate yourself and your staff to appreciate both the nuts and bolts of your business and the big-picture issues it faces.
Finally, ask both your peers and employees point blank: “Tell me what I don’t know.” Kick off every staff meeting by going around the room and asking participants to volunteer something they’ve recently learned about the business.
By showing you’re constantly hungry for knowledge, you create an open culture that facilitates the free exchange of ideas. And the best part of all is that you’ll maintain a high degree of self-awareness: You’ll act on what you know — and take steps to find out what you don’t.
Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is the author of “Skills for New Managers” (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and “The Art of Winning Conversation” (Prentice-Hall, 1995). E-mail:email@example.com