Not Knowing. It leads to Great Strategy.

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When I was a Partner at The Boston Consulting Group, I participated in the Strategy Institute. A small group of partners and leading academics would come together several times a year to advance thinking about strategy – what it is, how it is conducted, and what makes it successful.

We agreed that the ability to enter into a state of unknowing was critical to great strategy. While it was important to gather facts, analyze data, create hypotheses and generate frameworks, we recognized that it was all too easy to jump to half-baked solutions if we weren’t willing to dwell in an I-don’t-know-the-answer-yet mindset.

I see the value of this mindset regularly in my current work with Wellspring Consulting, as we develop strategy with our nonprofit clients. This state of unknowing may last for 40 minutes in a project-team meeting in which we grapple with data and search for insight. It can last for weeks as a project team racks its collective brain for a strategic direction that is truly right for a client.

But by sustaining a state of unknowing, which can be anxiety-provoking as the clock is ticking and due dates are approaching, one has the ability to see new insights. It is like taking the time to look for patterns in the clouds and, all of a sudden, the shape of an angel appears. Something uncharted and undefined is recognized and defined. In the same way, with great strategy, a period of digging into an organization’s situation with an open mind leads to moments of insight, changing uncertainty about an organization’s future into a strategy. Strategy arrived at in this way is relevant, tailor-made, and empowering.

By the term “a state of unknowing,” I am not implying a lackadaisical attitude, uninformed by data, hypotheses, or past experience. There must be a pressure, an urgency in the midst of unknowing, an eager investigation of all available clues. Like a good detective without a moment to lose, the suspense is high. The hunt is on. It’s this tension between the state of not knowing and the urgent search for an answer from which the insight emerges. 

The capacity to remain in a state of unknowing while urgently looking for an insight is a skill worth having. It helps medical diagnosticians arrive at more on-target solutions for their patients. It helps parents know how to serve their children better. And it results in great strategies that further the future of organizations and their missions.