Why Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

6188177297_a4d8c3017bNo one wants to look stupid.

Fact of life, right? We all want to be the smartest person in the room, or at least have people think we are. Who wants to admit to being uninformed, out of the loop, out of touch? Raising your hand and asking a question or (gasp!) requesting an explanation, especially in a group setting, seems tantamount to admitting weakness or a fatal flaw.

Understandable. But when it comes to making strategic decision, ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s hell. Why? Because ignorance leads to bad decision-making. It leads to confusion. It leads to blown deadlines, miscommunications, and massive project failures.

Actual conversation I’ve had in the past, with an ignorant person I’ll call Iggy:

Me: “Can we export a list of all content assets and tags from our CMS?”

Iggy: “Um…yes. Yes, we can easily do that.”

Timelines and budgets are built on this assumption. Project managers whirl into action. Two weeks later, Ignorant Person returns with the surprising (to her) news that the vendor who custom-built our CMS does not allow direct export, for various reasons.

We end up needing to build our own database crawler/query tool, which costs us time and money and incurs the ire of the tech team. Then the database crawler crashes the servers, leading to furious customers, scathing emails from upper management, and more time and money spent fixing things. At the end, the output of the crawl is so garbled and horrible we end up needing to do a manual (as in, people clicking through the CMS) content inventory anyway.

Think it might have been a bit easier if Iggy had checked out her assumption before blurting out “yes”?

I learned long ago that “faking it” in journalism wasn’t an option. You just can’t be an expert on every topic you write about. Nor can you pretend to be, because your chain-smoking, hard-drinking, eagle-eyed editor will catch your goofs and come down on you like a ton of bricks, and then you will be relegated to covering PTA meetings and ribbon cuttings. Not that I have any personal experience with this.

So I pretty quickly developed an arsenal of questions that didn’t sound particularly clueless, but ended up with me gathering a lot of information: “Can you tell me more about —-?” “I’m not completely clear on what that means; could you go into more detail?” “How does that work?” “What does that acronym stand for?” “How is this different from —-?”

I also learned that the litmus test of whether you truly understand something is whether you can adequately explain it to someone else in plain English, without jargon or doublespeak. It’s one thing to parrot buzzwords and say, “We’re going to implement a responsive design architecture to leverage our web assets across multiple platforms.” But if you can say, “We’re going to build a website that is smart enough to adjust its size, display, and content based on whether someone’s coming to it from a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone” — well, know I know you understand what you’re talking about.

The same goes if someone asks you a question you can’t answer. Don’t mumble some half-baked response and hope they bought it. Instead, come clean: “I don’t know the answer to that, but I can find out.” If my old friend Iggy had taken that approach, a very large corporation would have been saved from some massive headaches and cost overruns.

The moral of this story? If you don’t know, ask. I work with one very dynamic, bright, and hugely successful CEO who has absolutely no qualms about calling a halt to someone spewing jargon and saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What does that mean?” As a result, he makes decisions based on sound information and a clear understanding of what’s at stake. And no one for a second questions his IQ or business acumen.

So raise your hand. Challenge the buzzwords. Ask for more information. Admit when you don’t know something.

You’ll look a lot smarter than you think.

(image by Flood via Flickr)

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