Challenging the Unknown Unknowns.

I was recently at the International Coaching Foundation’s Converge conference in Washington D.C. The keynote speaker was Hal Gregersen from MIT. Considering it was a keynote (which can generally be pretty much a fire hose of information with little or no interaction), this keynote was quite thought-provoking and we ended up with a list of fifteen plus questions for a personal dilemma. Very informative and action-oriented.


The premise of the speech was what Hal referred to as the “leadership dilemma”. It’s so easy for leaders of small and large companies to be ensconced in what Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, calls “the good news cocoon.” No one wants to deliver the bad news, and everyone around the leader is nodding their head in agreement, instead of challenging the status quo. This leaves nobody ever trying to get to the bottom of the “unknown unknowns”, especially the leader. This is why the great innovative leaders are out scanning the environment to find out what they don’t know.

So how do you do that? Figure out what you don’t know you don’t know? Here are some ideas:

  • De-insulate. Break out of your cocoon. This works for all of us who aren’t CEOs as well. I can remember owning a restaurant several decades ago. Generally, I ended up eating in my own restaurant or at a franchise of the same restaurant. This was not going to open my eyes to the latest trends. In fact, it gave me a false sense of satisfaction. “Hmmm. Well, we do the Malibu Chicken so much better than that Sizzler across town.” What is the latest food trend coming down the pike? Who is delivering customer service that goes above and beyond? Break out of your insulation and find new horizons to uncover the unknown.


  • Break barriers. How many hoops or folks do your people go through to get to you? Even if it’s one person, according to Hal, it’s too many. This encourages leaders and CEOs to do what Jonathan Bechen recommends: “Manage by walking around.” If you are out and about, or in the lunch room, or by the water cooler or dropping by your employees’ cubicle, there are less barriers to talk to you. I spent 3 years working for a tortilla manufacturer. I can speak from experience that the person who knows the most about the quality and issues with a tortilla is the person hand packing it into a plastic bag. Not the machine operator, not the lead, not the supervisor, or the production manager, or the plant manager, or the engineer. It’s the tortilla packer who knows that the oven is too hot, the masa is too moist, or that the machine is spitting out tortillas too fast. Go pack tortillas with the tortilla packer if you want your finger on the pulse. Get out of your ivory tower.


  • Let go of being right. Hal asked us to ask ourselves, “How many things am I dead wrong about?” Geez. I’m not even sure I can admit that I’m ever wrong. How is the CEO of a fortune 500 company going to do that? Won’t that appear weak? But admit it. Think about it. What have you been dead wrong about in the last week?  I, for one, was pretty sure my son was not going to be able to surmount a recent huge obstacle. He did. I stand corrected. My assumption was dead wrong. And if you can’t seem to detect anything that you were dead wrong about, maybe you aren’t scanning your environment enough to be challenged. This takes humility, but it also breaks you out of your “good news cocoon.”


  • Get uncomfortable. How often do people ask you uncomfortable questions? And if your circle of influence is not asking you uncomfortable questions, maybe you need a new circle. This is why leaders join peer group circles, which can be beneficial, so long as it’s not some big competition to outshine each other on the balance and income sheets. If you’re not getting uncomfortable questions, it may be attributed to the way you react to uncomfortable questions. You may shut down or stonewall. If you aren’t approachable, you never get uncomfortable. You will continue to be unknowing of the unknown.


  • Find different. Hal asked how often do you talk to different people. We all get comfy in our own sphere of friends and co-workers. How often do you try to change up that sphere? I recently joined a meditation group in a town an 80-mile drive away. I don’t look like anyone else in the meditation group. Most of the people in the group were not born in the U.S. This has opened my horizons to difficult-to-pronounce names, unfamiliar food and a different take on my meditation practice (for the good). It’s changed me as a person and has opened my horizons to get to know the unknown. Seek out different folks.

Hal called this “Bursting the CEO Bubble.” But don’t we all have a bubble around us? What bubble do you have? How can you burst it?

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