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Moving Past "I Don't Know"

22 May 2015

Gregory Engel
The Regis Company


Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Mile High Agile 2015 conference in Denver, where Mike Cohn delivered the morning keynote address: "Let Go of Knowing: How Holding onto Views May Be Holding You Back." As you might expect from a seasoned professional, it was an excellent presentation and very well received. A collection of 250-plus ScrumMasters, product owners, and Agile coaches is no stranger to mistakes, failures, and terrifying moments of doubt.

As valuable as the ideas in Cohn's presentation are, I want to take them further. Not further into the value of keeping our sense of sureness somewhat relaxed but rather into some thoughts about what's next. After we've reached a place of acknowledging we don't know something and are less sure than we were just a moment before, where do we go from there? It's an important question, because if you don't have an answer, you're open to trouble.

The "I don't know" vacuum

Humans are wired to find meaning in almost every pattern they experience. The cognitive vacuum created by doubt and uncertainty is so strong it will cause seemingly rational people to grasp at the most untenable of straws. It's a difficult path, but developing the skill of being comfortable with moments of doubt and uncertainty can lead to new insights and deeper understanding if we give our brains a little time to search and explore. However, hanging out in a space of doubt and uncertainty may be fine for a little while, but it isn't a wise place to build a home.

After acknowledging we don't know something or that we've been wrong in our thinking, it's important to make sure the question "What's next?" doesn't go begging. I'd wager we've all had the dubious pleasure of discovering what we don't know in full view of others, and in those situations the answer to this question becomes critical. It may not need an immediate answer, but it does need an answer. If you don't work to fill the vacuum left by "I don't know" or "I was wrong," someone else surely will, and it may not move the conversation in the direction you intended.

The phenomenon works like this. Bob, a capable ScrumMaster, ends up in a situation that reveals a lack of experience with or understanding of the Scrum framework, and he doesn't know what to do. Alice, maybe immediately or maybe later, moves into the ambiguity, assumes control, and tells the team what should be done. If Alice is wise in the ways of Agile, this could end well. If command-and-control is her modus operandi in the defense of silos and Waterfall, it probably won't.

So how can Agile practitioners prepare themselves to respond effectively in situations of doubt and uncertainty? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

Feynman-ize the conversation

In his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman tells a story from his early career, when several building engineers started reviewing blueprints with him, thinking he knew how to read them. He didn't. Having been surprised by being placed in a position of assumed expertise, Feynman improvised by pointing at a mysterious but ubiquitous symbol on the blueprint and asking, "What if that sticks?" The engineers studied the blueprint in light of Feynman's question and realized the plans had a critical flaw in a system of safety valves.

That's how to Feynman-ize a conversation. Start asking questions about things you don't understand in a manner that challenges those around you to seek the answer you need. In essence, it expands the sphere of doubt and uncertainty to include others in the situation. This tactic is particularly effective in situations where corporate politics are strong. Bringing the whole team into the uncertainty space helps neutralize unhelpful behaviors and increase the probability that the best answer for the moment will be found. It is no longer just you who doesn't know. It's us that that don't know. That's a bigger vacuum in search of an answer. In short order, it's likely one will be pulled in.

The solution menu

Thinking of the Agile practitioners in my professional circle, they are all adept at generating possibilities and searching their experience reservoir for answers based on similar circumstances. When the creative juices or flow of answers from the past are somewhat parched by the current challenge, it is natural to project the appearance of not knowing. Unless you've drawn a complete blank, you can still use the less-than-ideal options that came to mind.

"I can think of several possible solutions," you might say. "But I'm not yet sure how they can be adapted to this challenge." Then offer your short list of items for consideration. One of those menu choices might be the spark that inspires a team member to think of a better idea. Someone else may find an innovative combination of menu choices that gets to the heart of the issue. I've even had someone mishear one of my menu choices such that what they thought they heard turned out to be the more viable solution. This is just another way to leverage the power of everyone's innate drive to find meaning.

Design an experiment

If there is a glove that fits the "I don't know" hand, it's experimentation. I suppose you could work to stretch the guessing glove over "I don't know." But if your team is aware that you don't know something, it's worse if they know you're pretending that you do. Challenges and problems are the situation's way of asking you questions. If the answers aren't apparent, form a solution hypothesis, set up a simple test, and evaluate the results. And as the shampoo bottle says: lather, rinse, repeat, until the problem is washed away. It's another way to expand the sphere of uncertainty to include the whole team and increase the creative power brought to bear on the problem. If your shampoo bottle is this Agile, I've every confidence you can be, too.

Now I'm curious. What has helped you move past "I don't know"?


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



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