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The Importance of Knowing What You Don't Know


Andy Sephton
Andy Sephton

Knowing what you don't know is impossible unless you are willing to admit you don't know everything. I know that I still have a lot to learn and I hope that I continue to discover new things for the rest of my life. An ongoing search for knowledge can be a surreal but incredibly rewarding experience as you often find out you know more than you think and less than you think at the same time.

I developed a system that helped me get my head around finding out what I don't know and I wanted to share it with all of you. The first step is to split the world into two groups: "we" and "they". In a business context "we" is us, our business, and "they" is everyone outside of our business.

Once we have split the world in two we then need to split each group into two camps: "know it" and "don't know it". This gives us four possible states of knowledge: we know it/we don't know it/they know it/they don't know it. To simplify this I have included a diagram to show it as a matrix and provide a more visual representation of what I am talking about.

Now we have our states of knowledge we can see there are four categories that come from combining them:

1. Common Sense: the essence of how it is done, how it has always been done and how it will continue to be done. It is, simply put, common sense.

2. Selling Point: the unique selling point for the business. This is the point of difference, the thing that no one else does and it is what sets a business apart from its competitors.

3. Innovation: the driver of change. If a business can find a way to uncover something that no one, including them, has ever even thought of before, then they have the potential to change the world.

4. Questions: the most important area for any business when it comes to finding out what we don't know.

By asking questions we can not only find out what others know, we can also ask them to teach us and we can start to discover the gaps in our knowledge. The trick here is to realise that questions are actually the key to all of it.

If we question common sense we can find out that the way we do it might not be the right way just because it has always been that way. If we question our selling point, our secret sauce, we should quickly realise that building a business around a secret will be very hard. Once you start marketing a product and selling it, we have to start telling people what it is and why it is so special.

If we can also get ourselves to ask questions we don't know the answers to, and not automatically reject a premise because it does not make sense to us, we can use questions to put us on the path to true innovation.

Finding out an answer only really has value if you know what the question was supposed to be in the first place. Asking questions won't always lead to the answers we want but they can lead to the questions we didn't know to ask. The key is to always ask questions and remember that they are often much more important than the answers.


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