No Need to Know It All

 By Lynda Bourne, DPM, PMP

Many project managers feel they need to be the expert who has every answer to every question to maintain their authority. They think it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help or admit they don’t know something.
The fact is that if you don’t know something and waste time and energy trying to find the answer yourself — or worse, make an expensive mistake based on false knowledge — no one benefits, least of all you. Once your bluff has been exposed, your credibility is destroyed, and with it, your ability to lead effectively.
Strangely, most people seem happy to offer help when someone asks for it, but are too embarrassed to ask for help themselves. But strong leaders, managers and team members overcome this “shyness” and take the time to clearly understand what they don’t know. Then, they seek aid to build their knowledge.
The key is asking the “right questions” — this makes you a better leader and also shows your team that it’s okay for them to ask for help. Everyone wins by asking for assistance when needed. The energy wasted on struggling to solve the problem can be used for positive purposes.
The power of “not knowing” will also open up two-way communication within the team and generate all sorts of efficiencies. Here are a couple of examples on how to put the power of not knowing to work:
  • Delegating. Some tasks are simply better delegated to an expert who knows how to do the job well and quickly. I’m sure everyone could learn to use pivot tables in Excel. But is it worth several hours of struggle when a knowledgeable expert — even if it’s the most junior team member — can solve the issue in a few minutes?
  • Engaging team members. Ask a team member to talk you through a challenge he or she is working on. You’ll get the lowdown on the task at hand, and good insights into how he or she works.
By encouraging your team to ask questions, it reduces errors, frees up communication and enhances the information flow in a positive way. It seems obvious, but it won’t happen without a push in the right direction.
Things you can do as a leader to be open to not knowing are:
  1. Stop talking to yourself and decide that you are going to talk to someone else.
  2. Decide who that will be.
  3. Craft the conversation. Write down what you are going to ask them and how you hope they will respond.
  4. Schedule a meeting with the person and promise yourself you’ll ask him or her for help and be open to his or her suggestions.
  5. Tell someone else of your intentions; someone who will hold you accountable for having the meeting and asking for help.
It really is okay to know what you don’t know and seek help. The skill is asking effective questions that get the right answers, and then having the knowledge on how to use the resulting information.
How do you turn a lack of knowledge as a barrier to success into a catalyst for positive outcomes?

The views expressed within the PMI Voices on Project Management blog are contributed from external sources and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of PMI.

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