IDK (“I Don’t Know”)
After listening to a Freakonomics Radio podcast on NPR, the following question and blog comments emerged:
Why do people feel compelled to answer questions that they do not know the answer to?
What I’ve found in business is that we are all prone to hiding our ignorance when asked a question that we cannot answer. So even if someone absolutely has no idea what the answer is, if it’s within his or her realm of expertise, “faking” seems to be an essential part of the response.
My professor friend told me that she has learned the following from teaching MBA students: “One of the most important things you learn as an MBA student is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. It’s really one of the most destructive factors in business. Everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, which makes it almost impossible to discover the correct answer”.
I ask: Does every question need to be answered?
Everyone expects answers to every question, especially if the question comes from someone higher up in an organization. However, not every unknown question is worth the time and resources to research. If it comes down to the choice of making-up an answer or being saddled with a research project, many people will prefer to make-up an answer. Perhaps in some situations, combined with the ego/self-image issues, every question will be answered, regardless of the person’s knowledge.
I ask: Should IDK be a legitimate response?
Perhaps, if the question has minimal economic impact on the business, and you know something related to the question, then maybe a guesstimate (an estimate made without using adequate or complete information) is fine.
But then, for significant economic impact questions …maybe it’s better to say “IDK the answer to that question, but we are studying it”, and then do the study!
As an example, management asks: Will our delivered cost per SKU increase or decrease if we add more distribution centers to meet expected growth rates and satisfy customer service levels?
The first reaction guesstimate might be “yes they will increase”, although, this might not be true.
The smart analyst will say: “Hmmm, IDK! Give me a few hours (days) to do a quick analysis, and see what the true impact will be.”
A small spreadsheet study looking at the increase in production and distribution levels combined with the increase fixed and variable costs associated with adding a few new distribution centers may be surprising. It may indicate that the increase volume and revenues and lower transportation costs will offset the increased DC costs.
This small study may also be the first in a stage gate approach to perform a forward looking comprehensive supply chain infrastructure study. A detailed strategic infrastructure study can capture the manufacturing and distribution details, including costs and constraints, generating results that will allow management to make a reliable strategic economic decision.
No field is exempt from their know-it-alls, even when the correct answer really is IDK.
I submit, if you are in an uncertain position, try the IDK approach and then offer the following response “I can check into that and find an answer for you”. You may be surprised to learn that your credibility with management will improve.
“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.”