What is your relationship with “not knowing?”
For most people, it’s a barrier. It means that we are stopped and can’t act where we don’t know. We wouldn’t have a person do surgery on us if they didn’t know surgery. So why would we pursue something if we don’t know how, haven’t been trained in it, or have no experience with it yet?
This approach is prudent for practices, like surgery, where there are standards and people who meet them. But what about going beyond the standards? Or inventing something new? Or learning in a new field? Or creating relevant new possibilities, not only for ourselves but also in the world?
We can actually become skillful with creating from not-knowing. In fact, it is a skill fundamental to leadership. It’s fundamental for growing your professional success. It’s a life skill for a good life. It’s a skill that goes beyond expertise, comfort zones, or ready answers. But we have to break the habit of having to “know to act.” We have to learn to “act to know.”
We need to go from having to “know to act” to learn to “act to know”
There are many standard practices for not-knowing being the starting point of a process. This is true for designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, learners, and even mature roles like product managers. When they start, they don’t know – they have a question or concern. But they also have a process for exploring what they don’t know, for designing what is possible and creating new possibilities. The first step is openness and curiosity, followed by inquiry, exploration, learning, or reflection.
My first career was in writing software, then managing software product development. It gave me the gift of a practice with the unknown. Our process was to start with a conversation of “requirements,” to figure out what the request was. We didn’t yet know the specifics of the endpoint or how to get there. We didn’t yet know the design or the product. We only knew that we had to figure out how to create something that someone wanted. There was a phase of listening, of exploring possibility, a phase of the unknown, where we were going to create something new from possibilities. I’ve since entered many domains of not-knowing, now including internet marketing and Chinese inner wisdom traditions.
In my coaching, teaching, and consulting I have found that most people have the default barrier of “I must know to act.” It tends to show up in some particular area as paralysis, fear and contraction. It’s a barrier that we often face with desperation or consternation, then with resignation. We then go back to the old comfort zone, the familiar future, even the one we had hoped to escape. We don’t know, so we don’t know what to do. We tranquilize ourselves with busy-ness and avoid the temptation to look over the barrier. We accept the world where the future is going to look like the past.
We also see rare people who are extraordinary leaders or entrepreneurs, people with extraordinary talent, or who are “creative” in ways that we aren’t. They bring something new. They solve a big or longstanding issue. They make something happen that was stuck. They create new possibilities for the future. They started with not knowing, too, but they found possibilities from their not-knowing.
We can learn how to have not-knowing be the start of creating new possibilities
We can learn how to have not-knowing be the start of creating new possibilities. But it usually requires a change of context for us, the context that lives inside our skin.
First, we need to shift from not-knowing being a barrier, a place of fear, to have the unknown be the territory of new possibilities and new value. This is not just a conceptual shift, but also an emotional and embodied shift. We need to experience the mood of openness, the body of relaxed curiosity. We need to learn to have new kinds of conversations. And we need to organize ourselves in new ways for the exploration.
Most of us don’t have these practices. After all, our calendars are full, we are already tired, and the to-do list is always bigger than our capacity. We don’t have time for such possibilities. We turn back to what we know, to our comfort zone, to the demands we must respond to, or sink into overwhelm.
We have to fight common assumptions and prejudices of our culture. One is that we have to go solo. School taught us to do our own work – don’t cheat. It doesn’t count if you get help. But in life, this just keeps us small. Big possibilities come from connecting and coordinating with others in teams, organizations, and communities.
Going solo we find ourselves with our same old boring thoughts and perspectives. But when we engage with others we can have new conversations. With the right conversations and practices, we can explosively expand our world of possibilities rather than just share what we already know. We can coordinate new actions to produce new outcomes. We can make bigger and more valuable promises together.
Another prejudice is that we have to have the exclusive right answer and produce the correct outcome, rather than take a journey of discovery in creating the best outcome. We want to banish the uncertainty of possibilities with something that won’t change on us.
When we learn to go into the unknown with the openness to possibility we can bring new practices for creation
But when we learn to go into the unknown with the openness to possibility, even excitement, using our interactions with others as expansions of our horizons, we can bring new practices for creation. First is the Conversation of Care. What do you Care About? For the sake of what are you creating? What is the gap between your current reality and taking care of what you care about?
Next is the conversation of Speculation, also called the Conversation for Possibilities. Brainstorm, create with abandon, don’t clamp it down or close it up with judgments. Dream. Envision. Play around. Taste a different world, even feel a different You. Create new stories. Get bigger than your opinions, to-do list, and fear. Spread your wings.
Then we can begin to select possible scenarios. Try them out with audiences to see what happens. Experiment. Get feedback. Learn. Prototype. Design with erasable designs. See what begins to cohere as Taking Care of what is cared about.
Then, and only then, do we go to assessments, feasibility, trade-offs, and design constraints. Going prematurely to this step sends us back to the past. Waiting until authentic dreaming and caring has happened opens new possible outcomes.
Then we negotiate our actions. And even here we have possibilities. We can propose, counter offer, continue to create towards the valuable future. Then we settle on a commitment, focus on execution, but execution that is still navigation to a new future. We harmonize updating our possibilities with the discipline of focus. What is the best outcome in the space of possibilities that we have created? The art is to focus on execution and keep open to improvements along the way.
Our culture has trained most of us to be competent to execute something as good producers. But we have little or no training to create possibilities. Creating possibilities is a practice. If we produce regular time for the practice we can build our skill and power.
Steps to Integrate Value Creating Possibility, Action, & Results
- Clarify what we Care About
- Speculate with Abandon
- Explore scenarios for Taking Care
- Assess the best options
- Negotiate our Destination and Path
- Navigate to the New Future.
I invite you to make a regular time for possibilities, to go into the unknown with anticipation and curiosity instead of uncertainty or anxiety. Build a rhythm of your practices that allows possibilities to be cultivated, born, and nurtured to actions and results. Integrate these skills with your abilities to execute.
We are born creators
We are born creators – kids are masterful at it. We can build these muscles through appropriate practice. If we say we are not creators, then that is what we create. If we say “it’s not possible,” then that is what we create. If we practice resignation, that is what we master.
But with a context of exploring new contexts, new possibilities arise. With new conversations, new futures become possible. We are already creating, the only question is what we are creating. So let’s learn to create the future we care about, rather than the future our default stories give us.
Go out and create the future, because you are anyway!
*This article is a summary of key points taken from the paper The Power of Not-Knowing, used in the Generative Leadership Program (GLP), and the Coaching Excellence in Organizations (CEO) program from the Institute for Generative Leadership.