Know What You Don’t Know: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 18th, 2013 by bobmorris

Know What You Don't KnowKnow What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen
Michael Roberto
Pearson Prentice Hall (2009)

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.

Michael Roberto cites this especially relevant observation by G.K. Chesterton as a head note to the first chapter of this immensely informative book in which he stresses the importance of mastering seven sets of skills and capabilities that are essential to effective problem-finding. Roberto makes the same key point (among several) in his previously published book, asserting that the most effective leaders are those who “cultivate constructive conflict so as to enhance the level of critical and divergent thinking, while simultaneously building consensus so as to facilitate the timely and efficient implementation of the choices that they make.”

He goes on to assert that “effective leaders can and should spend time `deciding how to decide.’ In short, creating high-quality decision-making processes necessitates a good deal of forethought.” Throughout Roberto’s lively narrative, there is a strong recurring theme: “leaders must strive for a delicate balance of assertiveness and restraint.” In this book, he explains, “I argue that leaders must become hunters who venture out in search of the problems that might lead to disaster” for their organizations. Consider what Peter Drucker observed in an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

The title “Know What You Don’t Know” has all manner of critically important implications. Here are three. First, it correctly suggests that identifying and then filling knowledge needs requires the same “level of critical and divergent thinking, while simultaneously building consensus” that the problem-solving process requires. And that consensus should be the result of rigorous scrutiny applied to a number of options even if (especially if) some seem counterintuitive and perhaps even contradictory. Only then will it be possible “to facilitate the timely and efficient implementation” of the choice(s) made.

The title also correctly suggests that this process requires high-impact leadership, one that insists on both good will and principled disagreement throughout group discussion and consideration while maintaining “a delicate balance of assertiveness and restraint.” High-impact leadership also serves as an example of seven critical skills and capabilities that are needed to ensure that problems do not remain hidden (more about them later), to discover “the bad news that typically does not surface until far too late.” However, Roberto adds, becoming an effective problem-finder (a “detective”) also requires a “different mindset,” one that “begins with a certain level of intellectual curiosity, is based on systematic thinking, and meanwhile realize that “every organization, no matter how successful, has plenty of problems [and they] often lie beneath the surface, hidden from view.” This is what Andrew Grove, former Intel chairman and CEO, had in mind when asserting that “only the paranoid survive.”

With regard to the aforementioned seven critical skills and capabilities, Roberto devotes a separate chapter to each. Actually, I think that (only with minor revision) they could be viewed as strategies as well as skills and capabilities. The most effective problem finders must also be effective navigators and politicians, as the following correctly suggest:

1. Circumvent the “gatekeepers” (i.e. those who control filters and other barriers)
2. Become an ethnographer (observe carefully, ask questions, listen intently, etc.)
3. Hunt for patterns (e.g. identify verifiable causal relationships)
4. Connect the dots (i.e. recognize relationships, especially between and among dissimilar elements)
5. Encourage useful failures (i.e. those that are small, brief, inexpensive, and informative)
6. Teach how to talk and, especially, to listen (also when and why)
7. Watch the “game film” of past performance (make adjustments, practice deliberately)

Throughout his narrative, Roberto makes brilliant use of a reader-friendly device that consists of a check-list and brief discussion of key points. For example, reasons why problems remain hidden (Page 9), small problems and failures that can threaten an organization (Pages 19-20), why information filtering takes place (pages 31-34), how to circumvent the filters (Page 36), principles of effective observation (Page 64), seven key questions to use when testing assumptions (Page 85), types of leadership behavior that can encourage more effective treatment of information (Page 108), four ways suggested by Roger Martin (author of The Opposable Mind) to nurture and develop integrative thinking skills (Pages 113-114), how to assess a failure before, during, and after it occurs (Page 125-126), how to speak up more effectively (Page 154), and “Three Dimensions of a New Mindset” (Pages 189-193).

I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Roberto that organizations should commit at least as many resources to encouraging, training, supporting, recognizing, and (yes) rewarding their Problem-Finders (“Detectives”) as they do to their Problem-Solvers (“Firefighters”). Of course both are needed. And both require leaders who demonstrate intellectual curiosity, adopt systematic thinking, and exhibit a healthy dose of paranoia. He goes on to point out, “They do not wait for problems to come to them. They behave much more proactively. They seek out problems. They embrace them…The very best leaders know that speed is critical. The earlier you discover a problem, the more likely you can contain the damage, and the more likely you can solve it readily. Most important of all, successful leaders do not see problems as threats. They see every problem as an opportunity to learn and improve.”

Why must the “great leaders” to which this brilliant book’s title refers be developed at all levels and in all areas of every organization, whatever its size and nature may be? Problems are equal-opportunity troublemakers. Just as minor scratches can become major infections if ignored or neglected, minor problems can become major disasters unless they are discovered and solved as quickly as possible.

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