The three most powerful words in education are “I don’t know.”
They’re also the most terrifying. Those three simple words conjure up that helpless feeling you get when your freshman algebra teacher calls your name while you’re idly daydreaming of yourself as Magnum, P.I., zooming down a sun-drenched Hawaii highway behind the wheel of a cherry red Ferrari 308 GTS after another successful caper with your best buds T.C. and Rick. Oh, that was just me?
For many, not having the answer is shameful. It means we aren’t paying enough attention or didn’t study hard enough. Worst of all, it may feel as though we’re incapable of learning and too stupid to get it right.
But in truth, uncertainty is an opportunity. Those three simple words — I don’t know — are a call to action. They are the beginning of a vital exercise in curiosity. Those three words have sparked countless fruitful experiments and innovations throughout human history. If there’s one certainty, it’s that uncertainty is the path to innovation and forward progress.
For business leaders, those words are also a potent leadership tool. Leaders willing to say they don’t have all the answers demonstrate an open mind, show that vulnerability is OK and that experimentation and failure in pursuit of growth should not be punished.
When not mistaken for insecurity, uncertainty is a sign of confidence. It demonstrates a willingness and commitment to engage in the discovery process and embrace others’ ideas and answers. It’s a signal that there’s not one right answer and we’re all on the same path to finding out more about ourselves, others and the world around us.
Saying “I don’t know” is a powerful learning technique. The difficulty involved in grappling with uncertainty means the lesson learned, knowledge gained or experience garnered will be that much more lasting. What comes easy is just as easily forgotten.
Long-lasting performance is driven by the laborious process of wrestling with a problem and not taking the easy way out. Embracing uncertainty means you’ve slowed down, engaged with an idea or troubling piece of information and asked questions about it.
Some learning leaders cultivate that mindset over time, becoming more and more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Some organizations deliberately create it by appointing an outsider to run the learning organization.
According to our recent research, 1 in 3 learning executives follow that path. They cut their teeth in sales, marketing, operations or finance. They were once consultants, managers and engineers before they became professional educators.
For many of the most successful, that lack of learning experience is a strength. Rather than rely on a set of developed solutions, they bring a learner’s mindset to bear. What they lack in efficiency at the start they make up for with effectiveness in the end. They rely on the team around them instead of their own expertise.
Jim Woolsey is a prime example. When he took over as president in 2014, Defense Acquisition University — the acquisition arm of the U.S. Department of Defense — was already recognized as one of the world’s top learning organizations.
An engineer by training, Jim had little experience running a learning organization. But that didn’t stop him. Under his leadership, DAU undertook an ambitious plan to reinvent how it designed and delivered learning.
It would have been easy to stay the course and continue the path of operational excellence, delivering courses and content to the 160,000-plus student population. What DAU did instead was to redefine its purpose, moving from a model designed to deliver domain expertise to one aimed at serving customers.
That effort resulted in DAU being recognized as the No. 1 learning organization in the Chief Learning Officer LearningElite in 2017 and Jim being named CLO of the Year in 2019.
Learning leaders from outside the organization — and successful internally developed ones too — don’t have all the answers. But, like Jim, they are curious. They ask questions. And sometimes they’ll say, “I don’t know.” Not knowing is no excuse. Uncertainty is the key to unlocking opportunity.