Martine Joosten reflects on how today's 'knowledge economy' is creating a culture of describe the imageconfusion. Keep things simple, she says.

Most people feel uncertain by the lack of technical knowledge of the system or product they support. More technical training seems the first action management reaches for. Unfortunately technical training is only valid for a certain domain and for a short period of time. Is it possible, any longer, to keep up with the speed of technology changes? Is knowledge the only driver that gives us the power and certainty? No not at all, more is needed to become more effective. Studies executed by Kepner & Tregoe showed us that good decisive actions are always preceded by clear thinking. But precisely that clear thinking is letting us down when it is equally exciting.

That 'illusive' knowledge

‘Knowledge’ appears to be somewhat magical. Normally it has been said: 'the more we
know, the more secure we feel'. Nothing gives more satisfaction than having knowledge
of the world around you. We will be able to assess the situation better, we know how to respond, we know the solution to a problem; it has its advantages. Of course the danger exists of running away with the knowledge; you get carried away, you think you know the answer and in the end you completely miss the point. Strangely enough, it is still enriching your life, as you learn from the mistakes you have made.

"...knowledge on its own is not the key to all your problems."

Would knowledge be giving you the real power? Or could it be possible that knowledge is hindering your work?

Yet I discovered during my activities as a trainer, coach and facilitator in analytical trouble shooting (ATS) and problem solving and decision making (PSDM) programmes, that knowledge could work against you if you want to approach problems (and situations in general) in a clear and consistent manner. Apparently knowledge on its own is not the key to all your problems.

With most participants attending my workshops, mostly engineers with at long service in their company, the extensive knowledge they gained is blocking their way to solve the problem: they jump too quickly to conclusions and they think they know the answer already.

They only ask those questions that fit their current thinking pattern and, maybe even worse, they listen selectively as well! Only those things that fit in their map of the world will be recorded and registered. Of course, you have a backpack full of knowledge and experience, gained over the years, which makes it difficult to look to new situations in a totally objective (blank) manner: without assumptions and preconceptions. And maybe this is not the best way forward either, it is even undesirable.

In 2009 Campbell and Whitehead (why good leaders make bad decisions) described this behaviour as pattern recognition and emotional tagging. Pattern recognition means that when faced with a new situation we make assumptions based on prior experiences and judgement (in short, jumping to conclusions). Emotional tagging is the process by which emotional information attached itself to the thoughts and experiences stored in our memories. We are likely to be biased in what to do by our experience, not by analyzing the facts.

But still... if there is so much emphasis and pressure on gaining knowledge and (what we call in the Netherlands) 'knowledge economy' (investing in schools, universities etc.) what will happen if you don´t have any knowledge at all? Would you be able to provide a better (customer) service? (Would you be more open to listen to the customer voice?) If you lack the knowledge of a particular technology, the best way forward would be to ask a lot of questions to get a clear understanding of the situation.

"Asking questions is like painting a picture; you are more sensitive to the
environment, more receptive to seeing new things."

Asking questions is like painting a picture; you are more sensitive to the environment, more receptive to seeing new things. Sometimes it is good to stand back and ask yourself the question: 'does knowing all these things, those bits and pieces make me really happy?'

Most things that we know have a rather negative connotation. Recently I watched an interesting video clip about ‘the value of not knowing', where the presenter quite strongly took a stand for 'not knowing' (making life more valuable). Not knowing when you do know is virtual impossible. It is of course impossible to just 'switch off' your brain, at least I haven´t found the switch yet.

“Clear thinking for a complex world”

The lesson learned from this 'not knowing' is the following: whenever you deal with a new situation, take a moment of reflection and ask yourself, again and again, which assumptions have I made, were these conclusions right? From which perspective or angle did I review the situation? What other perspectives might there be? Which presuppositions were leading my behaviour? Which interpretation or meaning did I already give to the presented data? To what extent is the presented information and data the conclusion from someone else? It is something I would call: “switch on the clear thinking mode of your brain”.

I think that even without profound technical knowledge, situations can be assessed and reviewed and problems can be solved. It is a matter of making the right communication and making your thinking visible by documenting it. Ask open questions in a structured way and document those answers in a standard manner. By doing this, a clear picture arises of the situation at hand, nonsense information will be discarded and the important information will have been filtered and will be documented.

This way of working enables the solving of problems far better than numerous trial-and-error attempts. The cooperation of individuals and teams will benefit from a systematic and structured approach as well. Existing knowledge in our heads should not stand in the way for gathering new knowledge. Open up, think out of the box. Complexity will become something you should not be afraid of. It will become even more interesting and challenging!

By Martine Joosten, KT Consultant

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