The Power of “I Don’t Know”

First up on Day 2 of World Business Forum, Steven Levitt economist and author of Freakonomics (a best selling book and now a motion picture).

Interesting, funny and humble guy (admitted right up front that he almost failed out of High School math).

His focus was on the difference between academics and and business people, and the contributions (or lack thereof) of many economists.

Lots of interesting insights, you can see the whole speech on-demand at www.hsmglobal.com. Worth checking out, hilarious bit about working with prostitutes to set the correct price for services.

What I enjoyed most about his speech was this one simple, and provocative thought…the power of “I Don’t know”.

Levitt’s hypothesis

Academics come from the point of view that they don’t know the answer to most questions and must do research to answer them.

They (or at least Levitt) starts every assignment with “I don’t know” as a premise and determine what steps to take to answer that.

Business people are trained never to say “I don’t know” for fear of showing weakness and putting their jobs in jeopardy.

But this could be a big mistake.

By not allowing themselves to admit that they may not know the answer they miss the opportunity to learn and improve the business by actually doing some field work and information and insight gathering.

They go right to a more knee jerk, superficial information gathering actions. The energy is spent on image protection, not really finding out the answer to the question.

The real shame is that, unlike academics that have to go out and find data, businesses often have rich, daily and under-used data at their fingertips.

Two key take aways:

#1 Businesses should use daily data, do field experiments, try what works and doesn’t and learn and improve in real time

#2 Managers should lead by example and encourage teams to “say I don’t know” and take the steps to learn and improve their businesses. Drop the stigma and move on to meaningful learning and action.

I am going test run Levitt’s advice and leverage the power of “I don’t know” and see if it improves my effectiveness in marketing and beyond.

Interesting and simple idea.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

Do you use the power of “I don’t know”?

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