I recently read a delightful little book, Ignorance, by Stuart Firestein, chairman of the department of biology at Columbia University, and had a chance to discuss it with him over dinner a few weeks later. The book is about how Firestein thinks science (and other research and scholarship) really works. In my experience, many of the same principals apply in business.
Firestein thinks we hold mere facts too dearly: “When I sit down with colleagues over a beer at a meeting, we don’t go over the facts, we don’t talk about what’s known; we talk about what we’d like to figure out, about what needs to be done.”
He uses the term “ignorance” not as a pejorative but as a description of a state: “the absence of fact, understanding, insight, or clarity about something…not an individual lack of information but a communal gap in knowledge…it is a case where data don’t exist, or more commonly, where the existing data don’t make sense, don’t add up to a coherent explanation, cannot be used to make a prediction or statement about some thing or event.”
What we really want to do with science, research, or analysis is (a) understand where we are ignorant, (b) conduct research to elucidate, and (c) open up new areas of ignorance. We want to refine our mental model of the world.
At one point, Firestein lists some questions he and his students have asked other scientists probing the boundaries of their ignorance. As I read his questions, my mind went to business, and I wondered if I could create a similar list in that domain:
- What project, sales forecast, or business line is not producing the expected results?
- What do my customers really think about me and my competitors?
- What are my customers’ biggest obstacles to growth and profitability?
- Am I spending my marketing dollars efficiently?
- How is technology X or trend Y going to affect my business?
- Why does it take different amounts of time to complete similar tasks?
- Where in my business are responsibilities or process unclear?
- How do I predict which job candidates will do best?
- How does my management team talk about what we don’t know?
- Is there something I would like to work on knowing but can’t? Is it due to time or money?
Of course merely asking questions does not solve any problems. But asking questions such as these may shift our focus to the boundaries of our ignorance, which is where most opportunities for growth and improvement lie.