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Imperfect Knowledge: On the Virtues of Not Knowing

“Some walks of life entail habitual uncertainty coupled with potentially grave consequences,” Leah Hager Cohen observes in her pithy and wise new book, I Don’t Know. “Firefighters, surgeons, triage nurses, hostage negotiators, miners, loggers, police officers, and soldiers all regularly face situations in which they have to take action based on imperfect knowledge – and where the repercussions of those actions might mean the difference between life and death. These are people who have to deal with the discomfort of acknowledging, ‘I don’t know,’ and then get on with it.”

Let’s face it. The dollar costs of a marketing mistake can be substantial, but they pale next to human lives. So why are marketers and brand managers and product developers so often paralyzed when they possess only “imperfect knowledge”? Why is it that, as Nate Silver notes, “Risk greases the wheels of a free-market economy; uncertainty grinds them to a halt.”

That’s easy, you might be thinking. Nobody wants their head handed to them on a plate for having acted on the basis of sloppy research. True, dat. But nobody wants to be embarrassed, reamed out or even fired for having acted on the basis of rigorous research either. So maybe the question we should be asking is not “What are the risks of uncertainty,” but rather, “What are the risks of certainty?”

This isn’t a methodology question so much as a cultural one. Innovation and business specialists preach about the importance of learning from mistakes and – in the new product development realm – of failing fast. Nobody really challenges the notion that nimbleness and innovation depend on organizational encouragement of experimentation and risk-taking. And yet even in that context, we’re expected to make the business case for our ideas, to proactively garner the data that will prove our future actions to be right. Simply saying “I don’t know if this will work” is never acceptable.

Why is that? Well, think of all the times you nod sagely when someone mentions a business guru or uses an acronym you’ve never heard of. Not knowing is embarrassing, especially because in most organizations, power and prestige traditionally depend on always being in the know. Not knowing is risky, and not just when the financial stakes are high and mistakes are costly. As Cohen notes, “If making a searching inventory of our biases and striving for objectivity regarding our deepest beliefs contribute to sound decisions, it’s little wonder that the history of decision theory has tended to favor analysis over intuition.”

“Data” and “models” imply objectivity, suggest some judgment that’s above the messy din of human beings just trying to figure stuff out. Relying on data drawn from outside of our own experience makes us feel less scared, and that relaxation is contagious.

But what if we turn that paradigm on its head? How can we drive innovation and derive comfort from not knowing?

“In addition to strengthening our integrity and the authenticity of our connections with others,” Cohen argues, “feeling free to say ‘I don’t know’ also allows us greater receptivity – which may lead to greater wisdom.” When our clients turn to their consumers for insight, when they collaborate with them in long-term relationships, they are essentially saying, “I don’t know – who you are, how you live, what you fear and what you need.” In doing so, they strengthen their intuition, which psychologist Gary Klein defines as “a pattern-matching process, a means by which we use previous experiences to categorize and interpret unfolding events.”

Now guess what? That definition of intuition arose from Klein’s research with firefighters, soldiers, chess players and stock traders – those people who, on the strength of their intuition, are able to make hugely important decisions quickly, and live with the consequences. And isn’t that what you’re trying to do, too?

So try it for a week. Embrace uncertainty. What’s the worst that can happen? Or what’s the best? I don’t know…

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