Monday, April 7, 2014

I Don't Know

I was sitting with an Engineering Manager last week, and he asked me a question that I've heard a lot from younger leaders (particularly new project managers in very technical industries):

You are in a meeting with a customer, and he asks a question, you don't know the answer. What do you do?

I responded: I tell the customer "I don't know, but..."

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As I look back on that question, I realized that I've grown a lot in the last decade as a leader.

As an Armor officer (4 tanks, 16 guy, in combat) the last thing you ever wanted to say or hear from anyone in charge is "I don't know." It is an instant confidence killer for your troops, and it stays with them through every event after you say it. When bullets are flying and lives are on the line, the last thing you want to do is kill the confidence of your troops.

In fact, there is a movie, U571, where this conversation happens aboard a submarine. In this case, the statement is about a Navy Captain, but the truth is the same. 

Fast forward 10 years, and I've learned that, in a business environment, saying the wrong thing will get you in more trouble than "I don't know." Why?

Because business isn't about split second decisions, but more about measured decisions that affect the bottom line. Often the leader will not be the most knowledgable person in the room on the subject; especially as responsibilities grow and projects become more complex. So instead of losing confidence and credibility with an "I don't know," the leader gains by admitting the lack of knowledge; and loses more by making a guess. Coming up with the wrong answer, and then having to either correct it later, or worse, called on it by the expert in the room just after she / he makes the statement removes trust in the leader.

So, what does a leader do? This is where the "but..." from above comes in. You follow the "but..." with: "...I'll get back to you with an answer."  That last statement is the key, because you are COMMUNICATING properly, and taking ownership of the question, which is part of COMMAND.

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But here is the other part of COMMAND: you have to find an answer (whether through research or asking more knowledgeable team members) and COMMUNICATE it back to the person / team; and it needs to be done quickly. If you do that you gain credibility, and the team you interact with will have more confidence in your abilities. You confirm that you are a leader with integrity.

On the other hand, if you use the phrase to blow off the question, your team will stop trusting you. They will stop coming to you with questions. That means you are no longer a leader, and creates another set of issues.

Now, as I identfied at the beginning, not every situation can be met with an "I don't know, but..." response. If there is an immediate call for action (i.e. lives at stake) or options are presented and a decision is required, then make the call. But for technical questions, where you are not the acknowledged authority, use the phrase, and follow-up. It proves you are in COMMAND, and have integrity.

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