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I do & I don't know.

In business circles, we all talk about things like engagement. How engaged people are productive people and productive people are happy people. Or is it happy people are productive people? Or is it productive people are engaged people? Oh, wait… is it that empowered people are engaged people? Oh, forget it. Point is, we supposedly value all those things—engagement, productivity, and happiness. They all tend to go hand in hand. We have a habit of trying everything we can to nurture these traits by “empowering” people. But considering all we’ve heard over the years about how only a surprisingly low percentage of the workforce is engaged, we clearly aren’t doing it right. One might even say we are doing it wrong.

Tom Peters says so. The famed business consultant has written it in some form or another for quite a lot of his career. He’s made some great speeches, too. The central focus of all his work has an organizational effectiveness bend to it and is well worth looking up if you like brilliant and quick-witted business gurus telling you like it is.

In one of his best speeches, he cites Karl E. Weick—the guru to gurus—on organizational theory and credits him for the quote above: “The three most important words in a leader’s language are ‘I don’t know.’” Then Tom emphatically fills it out further, “There are two important reasons for that. Reason number one: you really don’t know. Because nobody does. Reason number two is actually more important: empowerment.”

Are there any three words that give more empowerment? Are there any three words that give more freedom to venture, to quest, to chase possibility, to climb into uncertainty? I truly… don’t know.

So, say it. Say it a lot. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable at first—that’s okay. The people around you that seem to comfortably try stuff, that seem to have some measure of innovative DNA, what they’ve done that you haven’t yet is get comfortable with that discomfort, comfortable with the uncertainty. In truth, it really IS okay to not know. None of us, after all, have “prophecy” written into our titles, positions, or job descriptions. We’ve all got blind spots the size of the moon. And one of the biggest blinders is our inability to admit it. Starting here is intentional and important. It opens up everything else. Acceptance really is step 1. Repeat after me, “I don’t know a lick about this… let’s dig in.”

What if…?

Is there merit to…?

How might we…?

How can we…?

What’s to stop us from…?

Are there other ways to…?

Not advocating, asking.

You don’t have to know the answer…

You have to know how to find the answer.

Better to be right, Than merely act right.

Tell me more.

But what do we know? There are buzz words and buzz words around all of this forward leaning “businessie” stuff like strategy and innovation and how they are used in different ways by very sized companies in very, very different industries. Innovation may be the right word, right now. It may not. We don’t know. There’s a reason the header for this section ends with a question mark. Truth is, every organization calls it something different—progress, change, development, improvement, R&D, forward thinking, design thinking, sometimes even strategic thinking. Something we won’t call it is “strategic planning” because while planning is important in business, to call innovation at all “planned” is a mental hurdle we should avoid. We can plan the environment for it. We can plan the process for it. We can plan to develop our skillset and tools for it. But we can’t necessarily plan innovation itself.

Innovation can also come from anywhere in the organization. Marketing can be the catalyst, or I.T., or customer service, or product, or operations and fulfillment. So, while we use a term here, let’s more generally agree on it as simply the concept of forward thinking in an organization with a variety of those departments and areas. There are plenty of variations on a definition; for this book, let’s simply start with this one: Innovation is something new or different in a way that provides useful value.

Simple. Really simple. New or different without useful value is really just useless. Useful without being new or different is really just the status quo. Innovation requires new or different on one hand and useful value on the other. Not one without the other, but both. Yes, it’s a very clean and simple definition.

Except we can quibble forever about “how new?” “how different?” “how useful?” and “how much value?” Turns out, these are all relative terms. Which means that innovation itself is a relative term. It’s fair to recognize that we all can’t be (or aren’t) creating the next iPad or the Model T, products that create their own market from scratch. There are, however, still smaller, subtler improvements we all need to constantly be making. All organizations should practice as much. And when making such smaller, subtler improvements, they may be changes relative to perhaps the market or customer. Or perhaps they are only changing relative to our organization. Which is to say, we know we don’t know the answer. But we do know how to define it, and that the definition will always be relative. Turns out that existing in and around the uncertainty of innovation, hinges on comfort dancing between knowing and not knowing.

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