“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult one.”
– Donald H. Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense;
DoD News briefing, February 12, 2002
Do you remember this press conference? Rumsfeld was asked to account for his claim alleging the possession of evidence to Iraq’s attempts at supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction in view of reports contradicting that evidence. Be that as it may, the operative word her is “evidence”; did he have the proper arguments to back up his strategic decision with far reaching consequences, or not!
Instead of answering this journalist’s question, he baffled his audience by stating the obvious; brilliant! Although it sounds like gobbledygook, it was very good advise. But, because he confused his audience, no one asked any relevant tie-on questions such as:
- What do you know?
- What do you know you don’t know and what do you propose doing about that?
- What do you propose doing to discover what you don’t know you don’t know?
This piece of advice does not only hold true on the political level but also in business. When faced with a strategic decision, where you must trade-off more of one alternative against less of another, or vice-versa, when both alternatives are equally appealing, you need very convincing evidence for reaching a decision that gives you peace-of-mind. History might prove your reasoning wrong but at least you would be able to demonstrate that you did your homework!
As we know from our own school days, you either build your own line of reasoning or you copy someone else’s answers. The first option requires DEScribing the mechanism, system or situation. You look for cause and effect relationships as you build a thesis. You test your thesis and if its wrong you learn from your mistakes and formulate an anti-thesis. And, if that line of reasoning proves to be wrong too, you create a synthesis. This way you create insight into the inner-workings of your business. You develop an appreciation for how the business functions as a singular, unique and integrated system. Remember that you learned riding your bicycle by falling down combined with a zeal for mastering the challenge!
There is a second option where you rely on a PREscribed solution; where you copy someone else’s answers – you cheat yourself out of learning anything new. This means in the business world satisfying yourself with blind adherence to an ideology or a best-practice. These forms of thinking inside-the-box tend to be non-thinking. Its a lot easier than building your own arguments, because you do not have to learn anything. After all, you already know the answer to everything; it is absolutism and thus not penetrable by new facts. What is troubling about this approach is the lack of intellectual curiosity, which does not allow for any critical discussions. Therefore, this certainty of personal infallibility prevents any learning from mistakes. Furthermore, anyone trying to open a dialogue is even discouraged from pursuing this endeavor because of the risk of ridicule; being subjected to character assassination.
In conclusion …
The lack of higher purpose and the absence of any intellectual curiosity in combination with the fear of making mistakes, explains why many C-suites are challenged realizing their goals for creativity, self-renewal and innovation. In the absence of Executive Sponsorship, no strategic change will ever be successful. Consequently, its not unusual for such leaders to pride themselves on enforcing a “Zero-Tolerance” policy.
By-the-way, what would you advise those leaders with an aversion for experimenting with unproven solutions or dissenting opinions when they ask you to solve their recurring challenges with the “War-for-Talent”?
Am I a heretic for saying all this?
Have a nice day!