We Have No Idea What We're Doing

Whenever I get some time to think deeply about things related to the workplace, like how do we make work better, or what is leadership, or what is management, then I end up inescapably coming to the conclusion that is the title of this post:

We have no idea what we’re doing.

Sorry to be a downer, and I know I have a tendency to speak in hyperbole, but so much of what we do inside organizations, from the way we manage performance, to the way we set salaries, to the way we develop our strategy, to the way we organize our structure…all of this stuff seems so often to be made up. And what’s worse, we are all working together in a collective cover-up to our lack of knowledge. We create a very impressive facade that shows us all operating under “best practices” and tried and tested management techniques. But it feels like smoke and mirrors to me. It’s not all bad and wrong, by any means, but I still think we’re making it up.

I wish we could collectively admit that we don’t know what we’re doing. In Humanize, in the chapter on How to Be Courageous, Maddie and I point out that courage STARTS with admitting you don’t know.

You don’t know how it’s going to end. You don’t know if it is truly a best practice. You don’t know if she will say yes. You don’t know if the relationship will benefit their group more than yours. You don’t know if the strategy will be successful. You don’t know because you can’t know. The future is not knowable in that sense. Yes, you can do your homework and you can make informed choices (moving forward randomly isn’t particularly courageous), but you cannot know the future, and because of that, there is going to be fear. So to be courageous, you have to actually embrace the not knowing part. You start by being comfortable that you don’t know exactly where you are going to end up. And then you take action anyway.

Not knowing, but taking action. That is courage. But it starts with admitting you don’t know.

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  1. 14.11.2011 at 8:46 am

    Thanks for this, Jamie. It really hit me at an appropriate time. Wish me luck.

    • 14.11.2011 at 9:17 am

      You totally rock, Eric. Never forget it.

  2. 15.11.2011 at 8:38 am

    This is a great post Jamie, playful and provocative and, I think, an issue that is popping up increasingly often.

    We just don’t have the answers anymore. So much is changing so rapidly and leaders are still expected to come up with the “Fix.” If they do not they risk having their authority revoked and getting to watch someone who claims to know what the answer is step into their place.

    Ronald Heifetz’s work on this and Adaptive Leadership is really illuminating and a fascinating study topic. If you’ve not read that yet then I recommend it. My favourite (favorite) is The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

    I’m interested to see how you develop this – I’ve not yet read How to be courageous in Humanize.

    • 15.11.2011 at 8:49 am

      Hey Neil,

      Yes, we quote Heifetz in the book. Ironically, he is actually a family friend–I’ve known him since I was about 12 years old. But friendship aside, I think his work on adaptive leadership is some of the best out there in the leadership field.

  3. Cathi Eifert
    15.11.2011 at 9:09 am

    Thank you Jamie for the reminder! You are so on target with this post.