The magical effects of three simple words: I don’t know 

Humans seem to have a tendency to always want to answer questions. This is also true if they don’t feel confident in their answer. I have noticed in myself and in conversations with others that it seems to be really hard to simply say “I don’t know”. I am not 100% sure regarding the reasons for this but I think it´s reasonable to speculate that it is related to ego or self-worth. After all, it just doesn’t feel great to admit not knowing an answer.

Let me tell you something. It can be really liberating, to say the three words “I don’t know”. As soon as you have done it a few times you will find that it turns out to be very easy and that it brings some real benefits.

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The hidden benefits of not knowing 

Generally, I feel it leads to a great atmosphere in conversation. This is especially true if the person stating these three words is a team lead, project leader or someone else of – on paper – higher hierarchy level.

By simply stating that he or she doesn´t know the answers to everything it levels the playing field. It is also authentic. People will realize right away that this person is not trying to impress the others but really trying to be constructive.  

This is especially important when trying to find solutions for a difficult business problem. Here, it greatly helps if it is done in an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable to say that they are not able to answer certain questions (right now). The worst situation is when all involved are primarily focused on saving face. Particularly in conflicts, the phrase “I don´t know” can greatly help in resolving complex situations.

Saying the words “I don´t know” prevents a very particular dynamic I have sometimes been part of. If one always seems to have the answer to all questions, there comes a point where one is then expected to have all the answers. If it then happens that some questions can´t be answered the person then – since he or she feels the pressure to provide an answer – assumes a defensive and sometimes even confrontative stance. In my observation, this seems to be more frequent with people who are formally in a more superior hierarchy level.  

Effects on my work as PO

I gain great benefits in my daily product development work as product owner by not knowing. Whenever we have discussions within the team about solutions to current problems, it sometimes gets to a point where the question is asked to me how we should solve a specific problem. I tend to answer that I don’t know. This is usually the opening to a very productive discussion often yielding excellent solutions.

I actually think it leads down a slippery slope if the PO, Scrum Master, or Project Leader tries to answer all questions. As mentioned above, at some point he or she is then expected to always have the answers. In the end, the team stops to think and only executes what is written in the stories, essentially what one person came up with without getting additional input.

Moreover, admitting to not know something when working with a team in product development can also lead to a positively reinforcing cycle of trust, confidence, and results. By not providing answers to everything the team lead shows trust in the team to come up with solutions. This then results in increased confidence within the team. This confidence often means better solutions. Seeing those in action again leads to more confidence which in turn results in increasingly better products.

So, next time you are asked a question and are caught flat-footed, instead of scrambling to find an answer, I recommend to say the magic words “I don´t know” and see what happens. You might be surprised to find that it leads to something positive. If not, just remember that I don´t really know anything.