Moving Past “I Don’t Know”

In 2015 I attended the Mile High Agile conference in Denver where Mike Cohn delivered the morning keynote address: “Let Go of Knowing: How Holding onto Views May Be Holding You Back.” As you might expect from a seasoned professional, it was an excellent presentation and very well received. A collection of 250+ scrum masters, product owners, and agile coaches is no stranger to mistakes, failures, and terrifying moments of doubt.

As valuable as the ideas in Cohn’s presentation are, I want to take them further. Not further into the value of keeping our sense of sureness somewhat relaxed, rather onto some thoughts about what’s next. After we’ve reached a place of acknowledging we don’t know something and are less sure then we were just a moment before, where do we go from there? It’s an important question, because if you don’t have an answer, you’re open to trouble.

The “I Don’t Know” Vacuum

Humans are wired to find meaning in almost every pattern they experience. The cognitive vacuum created by doubt and uncertainty is so strong it will cause seemingly rational people to grasp at the most untenable of straws. It’s a difficult path, but developing the skill for being comfortable with moments of doubt and uncertainty can lead to new insights and deeper understanding if we give our brains a little time to search and explore. Hanging out in a space of doubt and uncertainty may be fine for a little while, but it isn’t a wise place to build a home.

After acknowledging we don’t know something or that we’ve  been wrong in our thinking, it’s important to make sure the question “What’s next?” doesn’t go begging. I’d wager we’ve all had the dubious pleasure of discovering what we don’t know in full view of others and in those situations the answer to this question becomes critical. It may not need an immediate answer, but it does need an answer. If you don’t work to fill the vacuum left by “I don’t know” or “I was wrong,” someone else surely will and it may not move the conversation in the direction you intended.

The phenomenon works like this. Bob, a capable scrum master, ends up in a situation that reveals a lack of experience or understanding with the scrum framework and doesn’t know what to do. Alice, maybe immediately or maybe later, moves into the ambiguity, assumes control, and tells the team what should be done. If Alice is wise in the ways of agile, this could end well. If command-and-control is her modus operandi in the defence of silos and waterfall, it probably won’t.

So how can an agile practitioner prepare themselves to respond effectively in situations of doubt and uncertainty? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

Feynman-ize the Conversation

In his book “Surely You’re Joking , Mr. Feynman!,” Nobel physicist Richard Feynman tells a story from his early career where several building engineers started reviewing blueprints with him, thinking he knew how to read them. He didn’t. Having been surprised by being placed in a position of assumed expertise, Feynman improvised by pointing at a mysterious but ubiquitous symbol on the blueprint and asking, “What if that sticks?” The engineers studied the blueprint in light of Feynman’s question and realized the plans had a critical flaw in a system of safety valves.

That’s how to Feynman-ize a conversation. Start asking questions about things you don’t understand in a manner that challenges those around you to seek the answer you need. In essence, it expands the sphere of doubt and uncertainty to include others in the situation. This tactic is particularly effective in situations where corporate politics are strong. Bringing the whole team into the uncertainty space helps neutralize unhelpful behaviors and increase the probability the best answer for the moment will be found. It is no longer just you who doesn’t know. It’s us that that don’t know. That’s a bigger vacuum in search of an answer. In short order, it’s likely one will be pulled in.

The Solution Menu

Thinking of the agile practitioners in my professional circle, they are all adept at generating possibilities and searching their experience reservoir for answers based on similar circumstances. When the creative juices or flow of answers from the past are somewhat parched by the current challenge, it is natural to project the appearance of not knowing. Unless you’ve drawn a complete blank, you can still use the less-than-ideal options that came to mind.

“I can think of several possible solutions,” you might say. “But I’m not yet sure how they can be adapted to this challenge.” Then offer your short list of items for consideration. One of those menu choices might be the spark that inspires a team members to think of a better idea. Someone else may find an innovative combination of menu choices that gets to the heart of the issue. I’ve even had someone mishear one of my menu choices such that what they thought they heard turned out to be the more viable solution. This is just another way to leverage the power of everyone’s innate drive for finding meaning.

Design an Experiment

If there is a glove that fits the “I don’t know” hand, it’s experimentation. I suppose you could work to stretch the guessing glove over “I don’t know.” But if your team is aware that you don’t know something, it’s worse if they know you’re pretending that you do. Challenges and problems are the situation’s way of asking you questions. If the answers aren’t apparent, form a solution hypothesis, set up a simple test, and evaluate the results. And as the shampoo bottle says: lather, rinse, repeat until the problem is washed away. It’s another way to expand the sphere of uncertainty to include the whole team and increase the creative power brought to bear on the problem. If your shampoo bottle is this agile, I’ve every confidence you can be, too.

Now I’m curious. What has helped you move past “I don’t know?”


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Cargo Cults in Management


I first read about cargo cults in Richard Feynman’s book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land. (p. 310-311)

I was a newly minted biochemist and Feynman’s unique perspective had a significant impact on my critical thinking skills. It established a “cargo cult” sensor in my brain. As my career developed and branched out into other areas of interest, the ubiquity of cargo cult thinking became apparent.

In the work place, “cargo cult” thinking may not necessarily be a bad thing. As a tool, it can be used as an “as if” frame for working out the solution to complex problems or gaining insight into black boxes. By assembling all the known and visible elements and arranging them to match the form as best as possible its easier to see what’s missing.

If an executive’s minions are behaving in a way that reflects his or her approach to management, is that a good thing? Here is where business leaders get into trouble. Are the executive’s minions imitating or implementing?

Less common, executives attempt to adopt practices that are successful at the knowledge worker level. About a decade ago I had worked to implement an Agile software development process with a small and highly capable development team. It was a daunting task: completely re-architect and develop a poorly coded application while supporting the old application. (In 30 years, this was the first and only time I recommended a complete redesign and rewrite of a major application.) Of course, we started each morning with a “daily scrum” meeting – sometimes called a “daily stand-up” – before the team set off to immerse themselves in code. These are very quick (15 minutes or less) meetings where everyone literally stands up for the duration of the meeting. The idea is that by standing, attendees are less likely to drone on about trivial matters or issues that do not require the entire team’s input. Complicated issues are quickly identified and scheduled for more detailed meetings, if necessary.

Six months into the project it was very clear our approach was working and insofar as the coding effort was concerned, we would be successful. The senior executive to this effort seemed impressed and decided to switch to a “stand-up” meeting format for the executive team meetings. They were “stand-up” meetings in name only. Rather than a once a week meeting that virtually always extended way beyond the originally scheduled 60 minutes, I now had to attend daily meetings that went on for 45-60 minutes during which nobody stood.

There were other issues with implementing the executive team scrum meetings. The senior executive did a poor job of modeling the behavior he sought and there was very little control over the clock. Developers are smart people and they notice things like this even though they are not directly participating. Among those being managed, it does little to inspire confidence in the management staff.

Nonetheless, I like the idea of applying Agile methodologies to management meetings. After action reports, as used by the military, would also help. There is also a place for storyboards and retrospectives. But implementing these and other elements would require a significant learning effort on the part of the management team. Not because the methods are difficult to understand, but because the MBA mindset of many management teams would have to loosen up a bit for the requisite unlearning to become possible.

Rethinking the idea of “management” in the context of Agile principles and practices blends quite nicely with many of the things I’ve learned around the idea of “Management as a Service.”


Feynman, R. P. (1985). “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a curious character. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Expert 2.0

A common characteristic among exceptionally creative and innovative people is that they read outside their central field of expertise. Many of the solutions they find have their origins in the answers other people have found to problems in unrelated fields. Breakthrough ideas can happen when you adopt practices that are common in other fields. This is a foundational heuristic to open software development. Raymond (1999) observes:

Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone. Or, less formally, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” I dub this “Linus’s Law.” (P. 41)

So named for Linus Torvalds, best known as the founder of the Linux operating system. In the case of the Linux operating system, no one developer can can have absolute expert knowledge of every line of code and how it interacts (or not) with every other line of code. But collectively a large pool of contributing developers can have absolute expert knowledge of the system. The odds are good that one of these contributors has the expertise to identify an issue in cases where all the other contributors may not understand that particular part of the system well enough to recognize it as the source of the agony.

This idea easily scales to include knowledge domains beyond software development. That is, solutions being found by people working outside the problem space or by people working within the problem space in possession of expertise and interests outside the problem space.

Imagine, around 1440, a gentleman from Verona named Luigi D’vino who makes fine wines for a living. And imagine a gentleman from Munich named Hans Münze who punches out coins for a living. Then imagine a guy who is familiar with the agricultural screw presses used by winemakers, has experience with blacksmithing, and knowledge of coin related metallurgy. Imagine this third gentleman figures out a way to combine these elements to invent “movable type.” This last guy actually existed in the form of Johannes Gutenberg.


Assuming D’vino and Münze were each experts in their problem space, they very likely found incremental innovations to their respective crafts. But Guttenberg’s interests ranged farther and as a consequence was able to envision an innovation that was truly revolutionary.

But if you, specifically, wish to make these types of connections and innovations, there has to be a there there for the “magic” to happen. Quality “thinking outside the box” doesn’t happen without a lot of prior preparation. You will need to know something about what’s outside the box. And note, there aren’t any limitations on what this “what” may be. The only requirement is that it has to be outside the current problem space. Even so, any such knowledge doesn’t guarantee that it will be useful. It only enhances the possibility for innovative thinking.

There is more that can be done to tune and develop innovative thinking skills. What Bock suggests touches on several fundamental principles to transfer of learning, the “magic” of innovative thinking, as defined by Haskell (2001, pp. 45-46).

  • Learners need to acquire a large primary knowledge base or high level of expertise in the area that transfer is required.
  • Some level of knowledge base in subjects outside the primary area is necessary for significant transfer.
  • An understanding of the history of the transfer area(s) is vital.

To summarize, in your field of interest you must be an expert of both technique and history (lest your “innovation” turn out to be just another re-invented wheel), and you must have a sufficiently deep knowledge base in the associated area of interested from which elements will be derived that contribute to the innovation.


Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Raymond, E. S. (1999) The cathedral and the bazaar: Musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.


Image by István Kis from Pixabay

Drive for Teams

I recently re-read Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” I read it when it was first published and I was still managing technical teams. Super brief summary: The central idea of the book is that people are mostly driven by intrinsic motivation based on three aspects:

  • Autonomy — The desire to be self directed.
  • Mastery — The urge to improve skills.
  • Purpose — The desire to engage with work that has meaning and purpose.

I find this holds true for individuals. However, when applied to teams optimizing for these three aspects can be problematic. If an individual on a team seeks to maximize autonomy, they are likely to come into conflict with the objectives of the team. For example, a software team that is tasked with developing a component that is expected to interact with several other components developed by other teams. If a single developer, in the interests of maximizing their individual autonomy, has decided to develop the component according to standards, design principles, and tools that are different from those of teammates and other teams (essentially, a local optimization,) then the result is likely to be sub-optimal overall.

Some individual autonomy must necessarily be sacrificed in the interests of effective collaboration. It’s possible, even desirable, that individual pursuits of mastery and purpose can be maintained. However, it may be necessary for an individual to focus on mundane tasks and the objectives of the team for periods of time. Finding ways to maintain a healthy balance between the intrinsic motivators and the purpose of the team is no small task and, when found, requires constant attention to maintain.

Perhaps it is possible to attach the team’s or organization’s purpose to the interests of the individual. Or sort for hiring people who have a personal purpose that is in-line with the organization’s purpose.

Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay