“I don’t know.” Not a very reassuring thing to hear from a consultant. After all, aren’t you paying a consultant to give you an answer? But in fact, that phrase is one of the “8 Great Things Consultants Say,” in a recent article by Jeff Haden for Inc. The reason he gave for including it is because a consultant willing to say, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.” is also more likely to have a collaborative approach.

For my part, I’ll add two more reasons; a) it’s honest and I like working with people who are honest about their work, and b) a consultant’s job isn’t to know everything—it’s our job to learn. We study and observe. Then we take that information, add in some of what we do know, and make recommendations that will meet your specific needs. If we knew everything, there would be a simple formula for every problem and you could buy a book of formulas and viola! You’re problems are solved! But, chances are if you’re hiring a consultant in the first place, you’ve read a few books, tried a few things, and nothing worked.

Long ago, I learned a model for discussion called the “Know/Don’t Know” circle. The idea is simple enough. Draw a circle and ask: “If this circle represents everything there is to know in the entire world, how much of it do you think you know?” Fairly quickly your group will say a very small percent, which is then drawn on the circle. The next questions are how much do you know you don’t know, and how much do you think you know. The latter is usually followed by a chuckle at the truth of the question. At this point, a little less than half the circle is accounted for. Then comes the big question: “What does the remaining part of the circle represent?” The answer is that it represents the things in this world that we don’t even know we don’t know.

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I go back to this often. Especially the concept of just how many things there are in this world that I don’t even know that I don’t know them. I don’t even have a frame of reference in order to be able to identify that I don’t know them. For me personally, I keep this in mind when I’m creating something. I often stop myself before I get to a completion point and ask someone else for his or her perspective. Maybe they know something I don’t. And, maybe by learning it from them, my project will be even stronger than it would have been if I’d kept going myself.

This is exactly why I love working with clients who engage with us for a Discovery Phase of their project. To me, the Discovery process is a meeting of the “don’t know you don’t know” part of our circles. You know your subject, I don’t. I know Learning Strategy, you don’t. You help me understand your content, and I’ll help you achieve your learning (and ultimately your business) goals. It allows us to join our two sets of knowledge at a place that is full of possibilities.

One thought on “I Don’t Know

  1. Alisha Gelhar

    Hello! Do you have any idea where the “I don’t know circle came from?”. I think it is an incredibly helpful model and would love to find the source but have been unable to.




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