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Ignorance Isn't Bliss, It's Oblivion

If your company culture isn't biased toward continuous learning and investigation, you simply won't survive.
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Not sure what "oblivion" means?  Take a minute and look it up.

Your response to that suggestion reveals a lot. Some of you will already know what it means. Some of you won't look it up because you think you know (Goethe called this frightening phenomena "ignorance in action" but in this case it's actually a case of ignorance begetting inaction). Some of you will take the time to look it up and be the better for it. Some of you just won’t care (shame on you). And most of you will say that you don't have the time.

But, of course, you do. Here's a tip about time: If you really want to do something you'll find the time. If you don't, you'll find an excuse. The fact is that even in our frantic and time-constrained world we have all the time we need (or we can make the time) for the things we are actually interested in. And if you're not interested in life-long learning and in constantly trying to make yourself smarter and better-informed, you're not gonna be of much value to anyone (including yourself), and you certainly won't be able to compete effectively in the new knowledge economy. This isn't just an attitude you need; it needs to be a prominent part of your company's culture as well, unless you also want your company to be yesterday's news.

What to Do About Those "Known Unknowns"

Today, one of the greatest obstacles to progress isn't ignorance but the illusion of knowledge, which, as often as not, is bound up in our arrogance and our reluctance to admit that we may not know it all. Real knowledge is as much about knowing the extent of your ignorance as it is about what you actually do know. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to do some rhetorical Rumsfeld rap here. I'm just sayin'. And, unlike Rummy, I think there's good news on the horizon, and a pretty simple solution to the problem.

While stupidity is forever, ignorance is curable. We can't save most folks from their own stupidity or laziness, but I'm hopeful that we can help you get everyone in your business focused on getting better and smarter all the time with a simple turn of a phrase. Because even if ignorance doesn't kill you it's certainly gonna make you sweat a lot more than you need to.

So here's a simple suggestion on how to change the conversation and the culture in a few words. The next time anyone, anywhere, says, "I don’t know," tell them that that phrase no longer means "they lack knowledge"; it means that they're lazy because they didn't take the time to find out. Don't know = didn't look.

The answers to just about anything we need to know today are out there, we just need to find them. To paraphrase Yoda: it’s not about "trying," half-heartedly, to find the information; it's about doing it with a vengeance. To remain competitive in today's economy your team needs to know where to look and how to find the right answers fast. Because you can be sure that someone else is right behind you looking over your shoulder for the same advantage.

Sometimes it's a really short journey. It's not even about automatically searching the web. In many cases you just need to do a better job of knowing what's going on in your own shop. I call this the "If P&G only knew what P&G knows" syndrome, and it's applicable to every business, large and small. The answers, my friends, aren't always in the stars; sometimes they're in ourselves. In other cases, even a simple web search will provide more relevant and actionable information than you can imagine, and more real value as well. It's not always easy, so tenacity and perseverance matter as well, but the rewards for persistence are clear.

But your people have to have the intention, the inclination, and your permission to look. They need a bias toward investigation and learning, not the self-satisfied and smug attitude that they already know everything worth knowing. Education isn't cheap, but ignorance is beyond costly. I recommend getting a t-shirt for the ones who just refuse to get with the program (while they're packing their bags) that says: "I DON’T KNOW AND I'M TOO LAZY TO GO FIND OUT." Not knowing is bad; not caring about not knowing is grounds for termination.

The fact is that, except for your lawn sprinkling system, I'm afraid that there's nothing left in our world that can operate on the "set it and forget it" principle that made life so easy for so many people in the past. The vast amount of data, the prospect of constant feedback and trend information, and the ability to change the behavior of our customers in real time are all raising the need to be (a) on the case, (b) in the know, (c) all the time. Not knowing isn't even a bad excuse anymore: It's a death sentence for your business. 

Last updated: Jun 10, 2014

HOWARD TULLMAN | Columnist

Howard A. Tullman is the CEO of 1871 ? Where Digital Startups Get Their Start and the General Managing Partner of G2T3V, LLC and of Chicago High Tech Investment Partners. He is a member of the Chicago NEXT & Cultural Affairs Councils and the Illinois Innovation & Arts Councils; an adjunct professor at Kellogg; and an advisor to many start-ups. He is the former Chairman and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy. Over the last 45 years, he has successfully founded more than a dozen high-tech companies. @tullman

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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