CXO

The art and science of "I don't know"

When is it best for IT managers to admit that they just don't know the answer to a question? Artner's Law explains why and when you should fess up.


We’ve all had the experience of not being quite able to recall a person’s name or the title of a movie. You feel as if it’s so close, but it remains elusive. We have a phrase for it, of course: We say it (whatever it is) is “on the tip of my tongue.”

But what’s the opposite of “on the tip of my tongue”? Is there a phrase that describes the situation where you know exactly what you should say, and yet you find yourself using every bit of your strength to avoid saying it? If it remains on the tip of your tongue, it’s because you’ve used superglue to keep it there.

Well, I don’t know if there is an expression for such behavior, but I think it’s widespread among some IT managers. In this column, I’m going to focus on one phrase seldom used by technical managers: “I don’t know.” I’ll tell you why I think it’s often hard for us to say this phrase but why I believe it’s important to do so.
“I don’t know” is something you don’t hear most IT managers admit. What other phrases do you think are too rarely used by technical managers? Send me an e-mail or post a comment to this article.
The science of “I don’t know”
If we look at the discipline of management dispassionately, we understand that no IT manager can be expected to know everything. Not only does technology change too rapidly to stay on top of all developments, but most technical managers are also overworked and struggle just to keep their heads above water. Further, as we discussed in last week’s column, job roles and responsibilities are very fluid in most IT organizations. Therefore, most technical managers are always learning part of their job all the time.

I think every IT manager would agree with the previous paragraph. That’s what makes it baffling when so many of us have trouble admitting that we don’t know the answer to a particular question.

What is it that makes it so difficult to say “I don’t know”? Below are some possible reasons that people give for not saying “I don’t know.” Let’s examine them in turn and see if they’re credible:
  • The person I’m speaking to thinks I should know the answer. This is a common mistake. Of course, the person asking you a question would prefer that you know the answer off the top of your head. However, the questioner’s real interest is in getting the answer. If you’ve got to research the answer, well, that’s usually not a problem. The questioner generally cares about two things. First, that you produce the answer in a reasonable amount of time. Second, that the answer is correct.
  • I think I should know the answer. This is just ego talking and isn’t worth discussing.
  • I’m afraid that I will look stupid if I don’t know the answer. This is possible. After all, if your constant refrain to your boss’s questions is a nervous “I don’t know,” your boss might conclude that you were dim. On the other hand, he or she is hardly likely to be mollified by your pretending to know the answer and being caught in a lie.
  • I’m afraid that I will look weak if I don’t know the answer. This is also possible, but unlikely. In fact, I’d argue that occasionally admitting that you don’t know the answer to a question can actually be viewed as an act of self-confidence. You are being strong enough to risk being weak. But how strong are you going to look if someone discovers you were pathetic enough to pretend to know the answer, just to avoid the perception of being considered weak?



The art of “I don’t know”
I hope we can agree, at this point, that when we occasionally admit that we “don’t know,” we won’t get hauled away by the secret police for interrogation. However, there is an art to knowing when to say “I don’t know.” To help, here are some general principles:
  • Know what it is you’re supposed to know. In other words, be clear what your responsibilities are and what job knowledge you should have. For most IT managers, that list would include knowing the organization’s operational goals and objectives, as well as the processes and procedures that you oversee (if not the minutiae of each subprocess). You should also know the vendors your group deals with. Finally, and most importantly, you need to know what your staff thinks is important.
  • Know the stuff you should know. The first step is to identify the areas of knowledge you need. The second step is to go out and fill in the gaps of your knowledge.
  • Know who does know the stuff you don’t know. Since we’ve established that you can’t know everything, how do you get the answers to such questions? The answer is that you need to have a list of the people you can turn to to get the needed answers.
  • Remember that “I don’t know” is the beginning of the process. You still need to get the answer to the question. You can’t use your ignorance as a shield to ward off interrogatories.
  • Have a good batting average. As we said earlier, you can overdo it with this “I don’t know” business. Make sure you say it sparingly, and when you do give an answer, make sure it’s the right one.
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