“I don’t know”


via The Wisdom of Saying “I Don’t Know” | On Being

The Wisdom of Saying “I Don’t Know”

I was recently reading a book about a medieval saint. Every day, people came to ask the saint questions about life, the world, faith, the heart, the path, politics, and more.

One person came and asked a question about the law. The saint simply answered, “I don’t know.” Another had a philosophical question. The saint, again answered, “I don’t know.” All in all, 29 people came and asked questions. To each and every one the saint answered, “I don’t know.” It was when the 30th person asked a question that the saint said: “Oh, I have something to answer about this one.”

One out of 30. The rest of the time, the saint realised that silence was an improvement over words.

Many many years ago, when I first stumbled into the world of knowledge management, lessons learned, best practice knowledge transfer, rah, rah, rah, I subscribed to a lot of feed and pages and sites. The sole survivor of all of these is David Gurteen Knowledge Letter. Monthly, it drops into my inbox and I have a quick scan…some months, I can just flick it off, others there will be a little nugget that strikes a chord…such was the case this morning…


That lead me to Omar Safi’s blog post on saying “I don’t know“, the opening paragraphs of which are quoted above…sometimes strength is not in knowledge but in ignorance; strength is being able to say “I don’t know“, strength is not feeling that internal pressures or external influences are compelling you to provide a response when the honest answer is “I don’t know“.

In searching for an appropriate image to open this post, I found the “I don’t Know” post on the Friday Food for Thought blog which also gelled with my thoughts and the ‘Inkling theme of today’s WordPress Daily Prompt…basically, if you haven’t an inkling that just shut up…

No one expects everyone to know everything. In most case, people respect more someone who can say “I don’t know” instead of presenting ignorance as knowledge. this is particularly true here in the way we manage our visitors, domestic and international.

Tongariro National Park is probably one of the most accessible national parks in the world. It is only a four to five hour drive from the international terminals in Auckland and Wellington: you can land in New Zealand and be in the Park in less than five hours. And on the rescue helicopter thirty minutes later. OK, that’s an extreme example but it’s happened. Because it is so easy to get to the Park, sandwiched between four state highways (1, 4, 47, 49), visitors often do not naturally feel that it offers a great deal of risk, compared to expeditions in the south of the South Island where you definitely feel that you are leaving the safety and security of civilisation behind you.

Visitors ask for information. They seek it from websites and via email before they leave home; they seek it over the counter and by phone once they are here. They ask in Visitor Centres and i-Sites – credible sources of information – but also in accommodation, in bares and in restaurants, where they person they are asking may not have been here much longer them, or have much more knowledge than them – but can still respond with a misplaced aura of confidence. They may not know at all, they may think they know, they may be simply regurgitating something they heard, they may just want you to go way. If they don’t know, they should say “I don’t know“.

And if you’re in the information game, be prepared to offer the same advice “I don’t know”. You may be able to to steer them towards a source that may be able to assist, you may just have to leave them to consider their own options, lacking the information they seek. Then their actions are their responsibility. Once you offer information, you (and your organisation if you’re at work) become part of that responsibility chain…like it or not…

There’s little helping someone who doesn’t ask for advice but those who do should be assured of either getting a credible accurate and relevant response to their inquiry, or be told “I don’t know“. Consider perhaps the example of Suzannah Gilford, who was rescued of Mount Ruapehu just before Christmas last year. Her account of her experience is well-written and a good read. Inspired to ascend Mount Ruapehu, still carrying an icy cap, she did seek information to support her decision-making…

Arriving in Whakapapa Village, I received mixed advice on climbing Mt Ruapehu… “You need an ice axe and crampons…”, “Sorry no guided tours yet, but there will be in 2 years time…”, “The mountain is sacred so we’re asking people not to go to the crater…”, but encouragingly the lady at the foot of the mountain explained, “You can go wherever you like… there are no signs yet, but everyone just makes their own paths in the snow.” She couldn’t advise how bad the snow was, nor how long it would take to reach the crater, and had no maps to sell, but suggested people were up there trekking and I couldn’t wait to see for myself!

One systemic informational failure after another. Pretty much every one of those statements was incorrect at the time (the ice cap is now substantially reduced). Locals are quick to apportion 100% of responsibility for rescues on those needing to be rescued but here is a smart young lady who knew what she didn’t know, who asked the questions and received in return a bewildering mishmash of inaccurate information. Who cares whether it was the DOC Visitor Centre or the Ruapehu District Council i-SITE, that she visited? Whoever she spoke to, if they could not respond credibly and authoritatively, just had to say “I don’t know

One would like to think that both parent organisations have a regularly reviewed FAQ for such every day questions in and around Tongariro National Park; a document that protects the individual, the visitor and the organisation. In the absence of such, a simple “I don’t know” may have been the safer option for Suzannah and the Ruapehu Alpine Rescue Organisation (RARO) rescue team that assisted her off the mountain…

It’s not quite as simple as the some would have us believe “…try as I may I could never explain, what I hear when you don’t say a thing…”

Sometimes you just have to say “I don’t know“…

Shared Experiences

Toby and Granda – Christmas 2009 – Transforming Bumblebee (c) SJPONeill

The title of today’s post is drawn from Christopher Stasheff’s novella of the same name that was included in the Bolo anthology, The Unconquerable. The story is of a small group of Bolos fending off a horde of harpy-like adversaries; as each Bolo is overwhelmed, it passes on its lessons of combat against this foe to the surviving Bolos. In this way, the enemy is finally defeated. It is that ideal knowledge transfer that prompted this post.

Observant visitors may have noticed a new addition to the Blogroll (on the right →) last week, Portable Learner – this is one of those sites you just stumble across sometimes when you click accidentally on the wrong link. The first thing that caught my eye was the definition of Portable Learner…”Portable Learner, n. An individual who carries their knowledge and skills in their memory or in their social networks, spec. so that it can be employed in all sorts of circumstances…” This struck me as being similar to that ideal sought in knowledge management “…the right information to the right people at the right time – and ensuring that they know what to do with it…” especially if reworded ever so slightly to “…an individual who carries their knowledge and skills in their memory or in their networks so that it can be employed in all sorts of circumstances…” and this is reinforced by the quote at the top of the home page…

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” — T.H. White, The Once and Future King

The first post I read on Portable Learner was Knowledge is Out, Focus is In, and People are Everywhere which is short enough to repeat here in its entirety:

David Dalrymple thinks that in the net age, filtering, not remembering is the most important skill. In his response to Edge’s annual question for 2010, How is the Internet changing the way you think?, he says that those who are able to resist the distractions posed by a deluge of unrelated information and focus on what is important are better equipped than those who are knowledgeable. “Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.” The idea that an external information repository can replace human memory is interesting, but the dichotomy strikes me as a little extreme. We can’t turn off our memories, and there is value in serendipitous findings. Focus and distraction work in concert in any undertaking. We’ll just have to be more mindful of which one is leading the quest for knowledge.”

This was a one of the themes of our discussion with the Centre for Defence Studies at Massey on Monday – how do you filter the deluge of contemporary doctrine, publications, reports, commentary, opinion, PowerPoints, etc, etc, etc in order to deliver timely, practical and relevant training. It is simply not reasonable to expect force elements to train themselves, or worse, figure ‘it’ out for themselves as a twisted form of empowerment and mission command. This is an easy out for doctrine staffs, too often employed as an excuse for failing to step up to the plate and accept some responsibility for what is taught. There was a general feeling that there is a need for an organisation that sits above doctrine and training staffs to filter the deluge, in accordance with national policy and mission-specific criteria, to ensure what is passed on for doctrinal development and delivery and development in training is actually contemporary, relevant and practical.

During the Great COIN Doctrine Review of 2007-08, all but formal doctrine publications were specifically excluded from the review. This step was partially in recognition of our own depth of COIN knowledge (or lack of thereof!) and also an acknowledgement of the amount of work involved even in the reduced publication list that this decision left to be reviewed. Things have changed since those days and now our primary source of catalysts for change in contemporary operations is the surging sea of the information militia, the blogs, commentaries, media reports, articles, discussion boards etc etc etc. In attempting to quantify the work involved in keeping pace with the daily flows of COIN-related information, the best we could do was reduce the load to a minimum of two hours a day for at least four days every week – and that was without any attempt to distil any information into any form of product other than the most basic reading list. 

I agree totally with the point from Portable Learner “…Focus and distraction work in concert in any undertaking…“. Focus is great for progressing a large workload but runs the risk of missing that serendipitous find that may greatly influence your area of interest – distraction is often good, when married up with discipline, as means of stumbling across those nuggets. The WordPress Dashboard is an example of this as it lists (way down the bottom of the page) the latest, and the hottest blogs – certainly I’ve found the odd gem when scanning this list; similarly tag clouds offer a similar distraction attraction to oft interesting journeys. 

The downside of focus is that inexperienced or unadventurous or simply lazy staff apply focus lists too dogmatically. Critical Topic Lists (CTL) may sound like a top tool in Internal Audit and Organisational Learning classrooms but their utility in the real world, especially in the Lessons Learned field, is limited at best. Time and again, such lists are over-long (our rule was no longer than 20 items but I’ve seen them bloat out into 100s of items), rife with hobby horses, and lack relevance to actual need. a key finding of  CLAW 1 in 2005 was that there were scarily few similarities between the issues identified by the CLAW, based up operational  reports, and the CTL that they were meant to reinforce.

So, anyway, this is why I’ve decided to add Portable Learner to the blogroll. As with the other members of the blogroll, feel free to visit them and draw your own conclusions, contribute where you can, and share back into your own communities…