The Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know

As Product Managers, we’re called on a lot to weigh in on questions, considerations, and issues related to our market, our customers, and our products.  And we’re often pressured to provide opinions either with or without sufficient data to feel entirely comfortable about drawing conclusions that we know people will rely on and act on — regardless of how carefully we couch our words.  It’s par for the course, to some extent, but the more prevalent such requests become, the more we might begin to lose sight of the hazards of engaging in such speculation, and start to leap to our own conclusions without doing our due diligence, even when we do have the time to do so.  After all, if we’re truly experts on our market, customers, and products, then we have license to make such gut decisions and skimp on the data collection.  WRONG.  Part of our job, indeed our necessary role in the organization, is to push for truly data-guided and data-driven decisions — especially when the conclusion isn’t crystal clear (and often when it is).  We need to be comfortable stopping the train, or at least slowing it a bit, to do some basic fact-checking before we make decisions that can literally affect the lives and livelihoods of our team members.  We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to understand when we’re stepping out of our “known knowns” and into the territory of “known unknowns” (to blithely steal a classic from Donald Rumsfeld).

What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You

It can definitely be an ego boost when you make those gut calls that wind up working out — and if you’re abiding by the Amazon principle of “Be Right, a Lot” that might be the case.  But it’s all too often an unnecessary risk that can ultimately wind up undercutting our status and influence in the organization.  Sure, when we’re right it feels good, and it reinforces that kind of behavior — but when you’re wrong (and you will be wrong), the cost of making that educated guess without even minor steps to confirm your approach will hurt you far more than being right will help you.  That’s because when we’re wrong, we’ve wasted the time, effort, and money of someone else — someone who relied on us, someone who trusted us, someone who we let down.  And because we don’t have any data to point to that led us in the direction we decided to go, the only person to carry the burden of blame is us.  Trust me when I tell you that the cost in social capital of being wrong on a gut-check is never going to be relative to the gain you have in being right.  Memories in our organizations are short — but people will remember the negative far, far longer than the positive.  So, when you aren’t certain about something, when you’re called on to make an ad hoc decision, when people want to push you to do the wrong thing — be willing to say, “I’m not sure, but let’s get some data to see what we should do.”  As long as you do your due diligence, being wrong doesn’t become a label applied to you, but rather to the data, or the process, or even the sources of that data.  Being diligent allows us to protect our own reputations in the face of a bad decision.

Gaps in Knowledge are Opportunities to Learn

You don’t know everything — not about your market, not about your customers, and not about your product.  You might think that you do, but I guarantee that at the edges of your knowledge are chasms that you have set off safely to the side in your mind, maybe to revisit during that mythical point in time known as “when I have some spare cycles.”  We all have blind spots, we all have things that we haven’t had time to dig in enough on, we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  And it’s in identifying those things that we don’t know, or that we don’t know enough about that we have the largest opportunities to learn, grow, and expand our skills and influence in our organizations and market.  Rather than seeing these things as weaknesses — or worse, letting them feed into that ever-present specter of impostor syndrome — we need to see these gaps in our knowledge as the opportunities that they are.  Filling in those gaps isn’t something that’s going to come instantly, but with time, effort and energy.  But if we leverage the relationships that we’ve built, and work with the right people within our organization (and outside, if needed), we’re continuing to build up those bank accounts of social capital so that we can cash them in at some time in the future.  And, by identifying the experts in our organizations who cover those gaps, we can spread around some of the recognition and influence to them as well.  There’s nothing wrong with building up our own capabilities, while encouraging those with the knowledge we might lack to speak up and speak out when needed.

Old-Fashioned Realism is Preferable to Blind Optimism

I’m a firm believer in managing realistic expectations, in being humble when necessary and appropriate, and in generally approaching questions, discussions, and issues with an eye toward pragmatism.  It’s taken a lot of time for me to make these principles a foundational part of my every day work, and far too many heated arguments, failed experiments, and misunderstandings than I’d want to count even if I could.  While we always want things to turn out for the best, we owe it to our stakeholders, to our co-workers, and to our customers to only take calculated risks — meaning that we decide upon a risky course of action only after we’ve done our due diligence to understand both the underlying data upon which we can make our decision as well as the possible outcomes that could result from those choices.  We want to push the boundaries, we want to try new things, and we want to pursue uncharted waters — that’s all part of our job.  But we must be realistic in our goal-setting, realistic in managing expectations, and in tune with both the good results that we want, as well as the bad results that might come to be.  We are stewards of our products, and part of that is a responsibility to ensure that our decisions are based on realism over optimism whenever we can.

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