A Business Technology Place

Three unspoken words

“I don’t know”

There they are. Three words that can be hard to say for many professional workers and managers. But why is that? Do they make us vulnerable? Do they expose us to judgement? They can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a threat to our credibility. After all, we are expected to be subject matter experts, leaders, and managers. Can we admit that we don’t know the answer?

During some recent reading, 13 Fatal Errors that Managers Make by Steven Brown, I found this concept linked to the idea of personal accountability. Brown’s thought is that an important aspect of accountability is being able to admit that we are not all-knowing. He points out that a mature manager will admit that they don’t know the answer to a problem/question and then recommend potential sources to find the answer to the team. In this way they help to guide and encourage the team to find the solution while at the same time showing a level of emotional maturity.Keep Calm I dont know

An important lesson.

The same concept can applied to non-managers as well. I’m reminded of an assignment early in my professional career. At the time, I was an intern in College working as a network administrator for a corporate network. There was a problem with a system (I don’t remember the exact details) one day and a service ticket was assigned to me. I spent a couple of business days trying to resolve the problem through a variety of techniques but I was not successful. Since I was now late on resolving the issue, my manager questioned me about my approach to solving the problem. I replied by explaining to him all of my theories and subsequent failures. Essentially, I was trying to show him my thought process and problem solving skills. My manager quickly informed me that my perseverance was admirable, but the customer was not able to perform their function. He coached me that it’s OK to admit that we don’t know the answer to a problem. The real trick is to know where to go find the answer.

Oh wait, no worries, “I’ll just Google it”.

Google didn’t exist when this happened. I’m glad it didn’t. The experience taught me a valuable lesson and definitely made an impression on me. Looking back, over 20 years later, I can see how it molded some of my professional and managerial style through the years. Many of the successes I’ve had during my career come not from what I knew, but from knowing who knew the answer. That creates collaboration, teamwork, and mutual respect in a professional environment. I still aim to show show perseverance for solving tough problems. But I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t the answer right away.

Feeling inadequate

When I assess my own performance at work, I always feel like I could have done better. I feel like I could have done more. It’s not that I’m not giving 100%. But it’s more a feeling in the day-to-day and week-to-week grind of the job. It’s that feeling that I’m not strategic enough when I need to be. I’m not focused enough on the little things. I wonder, if this is my best output and where could I be doing more.

Is this healthy? I think so. Here’s why.

Feeling inadequate helps me maintain a sense of urgency.

I don’t always act with a sense of urgency. It’s hard to maintain the drive of 100% all the time. But self assessments that seek new ways and better ways to do things help me keep a sense of urgency to continue to grow. Feeling inadequate to grow is a bit of reverse psychology. But I believe it’s a way to keep pride from letting myself get lazy.

Self assessment is healthy and results new ideas and actions.

Do the drill and self assess. As much as people hate the annual performance review at work, it does give all us an opportunity to self assess our performance. For me, it will inevitably lead to new ideas for how to improve my actions. I’ve used performance reviews to help set goals for the upcoming year and to identify personal disciplines that I need to develop.

A professional career is a journey filled with both success and failure.

I don’t like failure just like everyone else. But I don’t mind failure if leads me to examine new ideas. When I self examine, if I know I’ve failed at something then I may resolve to try the task again in a different manner or think about an alternate way to solve the problem. Software projects are good examples of this. I’ve been part of a team that has delivered software on-time and on-budget as well as as teams that have not delivered. The course of action is to examine what failed then get back to work. Take the time to assess.

If I’m ever satisfied, then I’m not accomplishing enough.

If I feel like I’ve arrived or mastered or all there is to know then I stop learning and growing. That’s not a good place to be. Looking back I can see this happening to me with project management skills after I completed a set of training classes. I know my skills as a project manager ceased to grow at that point. But there is always room for improvement. There is always something new to learn. I’m not one to sit and watch. I like to take action.