Opportunity is I Don’t Know

‘I don’t know’ and ‘you are right’ are two things we are often afraid to say. But I don’t know and you are right should not be road blocks or hurdles. They are opportunities. I don’t know is a chance to learn something new, and to come back to the client or team mate with new opportunities. You are right is a chance to teach yourself where you might have made an inappropriate assumption or misinterpreted some data.

I don’t know

Ever since childhood I was told to know the answers to questions I might be asked. Don’t lie, but make sure you have done your due diligence and can provide an answer. I was also told that it is OK not to know something rather than lie. This is all good and well and works for a ten year old, but doesn’t translate to the professional world with all the accolades it likely should. As a consultant, I am brought in to know the answers, to understand solutions and to make suggestions on how to move forward. Not knowing rationale or best practices limits my appearance as an expert on design. But that doesn’t mean I should lie. One of the biggest lessons I have learned over the last few years is it is acceptable to say I don’t know. I don’t know is not a weakness of character or knowledge, it is an opportunity to grow. The client asks me a question about a system, process or design not because they have the answer but because they do not know either. So turn I don’t know into an opportunity for both of you to learn. Come back that afternoon, the next day, or later that week and talk with that stakeholder and mutual education can make than person a champion for your cause with the rest of the client team.

You are right

Similar to I don’t know is you are right. Certainly a harder lesson to learn is that it is acceptable to tell a team member or client is correct. I should note, it is not only acceptable but appropriate to say this in many cases. Especially in regards to the client, where they are the subject matter experts, it would be a miracle to confidently describe every aspect of a complex system or process on your first go (at least my first go) regardless of the detailed research methods employed and visual models used. Even on the team level though, You Are Right is invaluable. Teams are often a mix of experienced and more novice individuals and this is an opportunity to learn from both. Experienced team members bring wisdom and lessons learned to the field, newer members bring fresh methods and a desire for the riskier approach (sometimes though not always). Saying You are right to a team member or client is again, a chance to make corrections, realign approaches and to educate yourself on a system. On a client side, I always say you are right when receiving feedback on models describing systems. When I have overlooked or omitted steps the client knows best what is needed and I am utterly appreciative of their willingness to train me in their systems. With team members, you are right is the best response when receiving feedback on how I present myself and what tools might be best used.


The base of this topic is not the I don’t know and You are right are the ways to be a good consultant. Nor are these two lines the way through a happy life. Instead it is a fraction of a larger conversation, around discussing opportunities with team mates and clients rather than setting up situations for confrontations. The opposite to I Don’t Know is I’m Right, and sets both sides on the defensive. The opposite of You are Right is Your are Wrong and this again sets critical stakeholders and allies on the defensive. When choosing your words, mind the semantics of language and look at every opportunity as a chance to teach yourself something new and to build relationships.

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