What to do when you don’t have the answer

School conditioned many of us to expect to have an answer when questioned. Often we feel silly or vulnerable if we don’t have an answer. However, in life, we often get difficult questions we don’t know the answer to. In these situations it is important not to bluff – this destroys trust. I have a 3 step process for answering difficult questions.

Here is what I know

You don’t need to know everything. Sometimes when you don’t know the answer you actually know enough to help the requestor. There is no point in spending time getting precision if a rough estimate is good enough.

Someone might ask for the widget production numbers for the week. If you can’t remember the specifics but confidently know that production was on target then say so. “I can’t recall the specific volume. When I check this morning we were on track and on target to hit quota.” This specific example might even answer the question behind the question which is likely to be are we on track.

It is more informative for the requestor to get a partial answer to a question.  Even an incomplete an answer demonstrates knowledge and awareness    

Here is what I don’t know

Being clear about what you don’t know demonstrates that you have a grasp of the key aspects even if you don’t know the specifics. It also gives the requestor a chance to highlight things you might need to know but didn’t consider (the unknown unknowns). Sometimes the requestor knows the bits you don’t and so between you, there is the answer.

Here is how I’ll figure it out

Figuring it out can be a simple as requesting some information from a colleague or a complex as conducting experiments and analysis to find the answers. Before investing time and effort in plugging the knowledge gaps it is worth validating that it would be useful. Occasionally the cost of finding out the unknowns is greater than the value of knowing.

I’ll blog separately on techniques for exploring solutions to really tricky problems.

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