“What don’t we know?”

Expertise is a reassuring thing, especially if you’re a patient in an operating theatre or a passenger on a long-haul flight. We want those in charge to know what they’re doing. Deep mastery, though, can also sabotage decision-making and blind executives to former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld’s, famous “unknown unknowns”. In a rush for a solution, that simple question – “What don’t we know?” – is often answered by “hard facts”. “There’s a difference between the kind of problems that companies, institutions, and governments are able to solve and the ones that they need to solve,” says Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of strategy firm Jump Associates. “Most big organisations are good at solving clear but complicated problems. They’re absolutely horrible at solving ambiguous problems – when you don’t know what you don’t know. Faced with ambiguity, their gears grind to a halt.” Adds Inder Sidhu, Senior Vice President for Strategy and Planning at Cisco: “The information they gather helps them cope with ambiguity and often forms the foundation of their strategic thinking. But just as in personal relationships, hard facts aren’t all that matter.” Leaders must also pay attention to softer issues such as misconceptions and personal biases. “When making a decision where known ambiguity exists, leaders must carefully evaluate how they form their opinions, including the information they use, the sources they trust and the revelations they discount,” Sidhu says. “Doing so will help leaders separate fact from fiction, and increase the likelihood of their success.”

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