The Power of “I Don’t Know”


Originally published in INC. Magazine on October 1, 2013

As the boss, you’re expected to have an answer for every situation. But as advertising exec Curt Hanke explains, sometimes acknowledging that you don’t know it all can be the best move for your business.

In a 2012 study on the state of marketing conducted by IBM, 52 percent of Chief Marketing Officers said that they are unprepared for the expected level of complexity over the next five years. Which only makes me wonder whether the other 48 percent were posturing, daydreaming when they answered the survey, or really think they have it all figured out.

From big data to the myriad of little dials we need to turn in managing our brands, there has never been more to do, less time in which to do it, and such a paucity of patience for poor performance.

So what’s a marketer to do? Develop more sophisticated systems and tools? Invest in new methodologies and engagement strategies? Create deeper integration between every function in their business — from IT and Finance to Customer Service and Sales?

(Yes, yes, and yes.)

But while these might be some of the functional changes required to stay competitive, I’d suggest that there is a fundamental approach that is the fountainhead from which success in this new era of marketing must truly begin.

In brief, this approach can be captured in three simple words: “I don’t know.”

That’s right, I’d maintain that acknowledging (and for some, this might feel more like “admitting”) a lack of knowledge within and across this business function is a critical skill for marketers of all stripes. Here are a few reasons why.

“I Don’t Know” Creates Possibilities. It’s been said that the key to success is to never stop learning, while the key to failure is to think you know it all. Modern-day marketers need to be comfortable acknowledging their blind spots. It’s truly impossible to be an expert at everything in an area of exploding apertures, approaches, and analytics; by starting with a baseline of what is not known, exploration into untapped possibilities for the organization can begin in earnest.

“I Don’t Know” Inspires Engagement. Do you want to work with or for the person who knows everything? Or would you prefer the leader who wants everyone to use his or her talents, curiosity, and passion to help find the answer? By creating space for new data, ideas, and perspectives, “I Don’t Know” helps marketers (and businesses) get the most from their teams.

“I Don’t Know” Defends Against Complacency. Andrew Grove, former president and CEO of Intel, is famous for saying, “Only the paranoid survive.” With not just increasing information but also decreasing control in the participation age, great marketers (and leaders) need to fight against getting comfortable. It is incredibly easy to fall into patterns, particularly when the regression line is gently nudging north. As such, creating a culture of inquiry — where “I Don’t Know” (and “Let’s Find Out”) are valued — helps create constructive agitation.

“I Don’t Know” Is Just More Fun. The 2013 Gallup State of the American Workplace Report found that only 30 percent of employees are engaged and inspired at work. Yikes. By creating a culture of “I Don’t Know,” marketers help build a place where most employees want to work — where their opinion is heard, where there efforts matter, and where they can truly make a difference. In sum: Happier employees, better productivity, and superior outcomes.

For the avoidance of doubt, if you do know something… well, then, yes, state it clearly, with confidence and conviction; let the proverbial dog run.

But to the larger theme here, in my career, the clients and marketers who got the most from their agencies and teams were the ones who were open — and dare I say, fearless — in acknowledging what they didn’t know and challenging everyone around them to relentlessly bring new data, fresh insights, and any and all ideas to the table.

But don’t take it from me. “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” said the enigmatic figure known as Socrates.

So, is this idea of “I Don’t Know” relevant for you and your business?

I don’t know; you tell me.