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Uncertainty, Possibility and the Value of Not Knowing

Bob Little 

May 19, 2017

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates

For as long as society has prized the possession of knowledge and knowing, people have said that “you don’t know what you don’t know” and this has been used to justify and encourage all forms of learning.

However, the very concept of “prizing knowledge” may be changing, with major implications for L&D professionals. For example, should they focus on their traditional job of providing knowledge to learners, or start to validate the sources of that knowledge?

The Danger of Accepted Wisdom

In addition, there are growing indications that “accepted knowledge” can be unreliable. Relying on so-called conventional wisdom can hamper creativity, by encouraging people not to look at things from a different angle. That affects L&D professionals’ ability to facilitate changes and to help their organizations to operate efficiently.

Uncertainty and Possibility

Steven D’Souza, an associate professor with the FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance Business School, and Diana Renner, a director of the Melbourne-based Uncharted Leadership Institute, explore some of these issues in “Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Possibility,” which argues the case for turning uncertainty into opportunities.

Renner was inspired by her experience of leaving her country of birth (Romania) in 1987, to go to a new country, which involved continuous professional reinvention. Currently, she’s interested in “sand box leadership,” where people can develop more self-awareness and become comfortable with not knowing.

Knowledge Can Be Dangerous

“In recent years, we’ve proven that knowledge can be dangerous because we’ve placed our faith in what we thought we knew, and in the expertise of a few (the financial services sector, for example),” D’Souza explains. “It shows that we don’t know as much as we think we do!”

He argues that, in recent years, our “commonly accepted knowledge” has misled us, resulting in a growth in uncertainty and not knowing. Not only has this made us (corporations and people) unhappy, but it’s resulted in financial mayhem and a growth in mistrust.

Trump: The Result of a Lack of Trust

“You could argue that the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump are the outcomes of a lack of trust in institutions,” said David Wells, of the FT|IE CLA. “This is something which accelerated after the 2008 financial crash and crossed over into other areas, especially corporate life.

“A lack of trust among colleagues in the workplace is a serious issue, and the HR and L&D professionals need to get to grips with.”

The Stress and Benefits of Not Knowing

Feeling that we don’t have the answers that we need produces insecurity and mistrust. Yet, argue D’Souza and Renner, acknowledging that there are things we don’t know can be beneficial. It helps us to develop an exploratory mindset.

That mindset can lead us to discover and create new ways to deal with business problems and issues, especially since we now know that attempting to solve new problems with old thinking will not work.

Curiosity is the Key to Development

Commenting on Not Knowing, Rebecca Miller, Head of Future Capability at National Australia Bank, argues that curiosity, and not knowledge, is now power. To be curious, we must fundamentally accept that we don’t know everything.

And Carsten Sudhoff, CEO of Circular Society, adds that “not knowing” is a: “critical skill needed by leaders to tackle the complex problems in society.”

The Four Benefits of “Not Knowing”

D’Souza advocates four beneficial strategies of “not knowing:”

  • Empty your cup. “We need to approach things in a different way because the expert’s way sees too few possibilities and opportunities.”
  • Close your eyes in order to see. “We need to discover new sources of data, so that we can see new perspectives.”
  • Leap into the dark. “We need to be open to experiment, and learn from our mistakes.”
  • Delight in the unknown. “We should see every day as an opportunity to do something new.”

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