How 3 Words Helps You Solve Your Toughest Problems

Feb 22, 2017 1 Min Read
I don't know
How I Don't Know Helps You Solve Tough Challenges
If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”– Albert Einstein

Imagine yourself in a morning meeting where a challenging problem is presented. Everyone has had their morning dose of caffeine, minds are alert, and each person has their best thinking cap on.

In this kind of scenario, there are usually two responses that come from those in a meeting. The first group of people sit in reticence – perhaps they should have taken a second cup of coffee. They might have some ideas, but are possibly afraid of losing face if what they have in mind sounds a little off the mark.

The second group of people are those eager beavers who will flood the initial silence with a torrent of ideas, and if Plan A doesn’t take off, there are 25 other letters in the alphabet. Should those letters run out, other alphabets are available!

Modern-day leadership can be a victim of its own success. In fact, the reason why I (along with others) am constantly reflecting on the question, ‘What is leadership?’ is because, sometimes, we think it’s enough to be a leader in order to have the job done. This is a bit like thinking the work is done when a couple gets married at the altar. On the contrary, this is the point where the work begins, and we think otherwise at our own peril.

This might interest you: Do We Need Magical Traits Or A Paradigm Shift To Become Effective Problem Solvers?

When a problem is introduced, leaders tend to expect the solution to arrive yesterday. To a certain degree, a sense of urgency is both understandable and necessary. Unlike in ancient Greece where philosophers could stroll through the agora pondering questions at their leisure, today’s competitive world demands solutions to problems almost as soon as they’re discovered.

The bane of quick fixes

“We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way.” – Atul Gawande

The problem with trying to find the quick fix is that, while this is a fine approach to addressing small issues that arise, when we embrace a one-size-fits-all approach to all challenges, it simply creates more difficulties. While we can’t afford to leisurely think about the best way to solve problems that arise, we tend to go to the other extreme by not giving much thought to difficult issues.

Leaders are often keen to express their expertise and knowledge; employees who are eager to impress are quick to offload an array of suggestions; and those who choose to stay invisible and remain safe are happy to yield the floor to the former groups. But there’s a missing piece here, and one that’s arguably the most crucial piece of the puzzle.

Whenever a problem arises, we frequently come at it as though we already have the best solution. Rarely do we approach problems with a beginner’s mind — with the fervent curiosity of an imaginative child. Again, not all problems need such an approach. Sometimes solutions are obvious; however, there are plenty of puzzles in leadership and in business that keep us guessing. Otherwise, there’d be no need for the countless lectures, books and blogs that continue to strive to explore complex challenges.
Recommended reading: Design Thinking As A Problem-Solving Tool

The magic words

“A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” – C.S. Lewis

In addressing any difficult problem, I believe there are three magical words we can use that will put us in the best starting position to find the best solution. Mathematicians, physicists, biologists and engineers use these words before tackling a problem, but for many of us, we find the words difficult to say. So, what are those three words?

I don’t know.

The all-knowing mindset

Starting from a position of, “I know!” immediately shuts off all avenues of examination and exploration. How many of us have heard a tough problem being addressed in this way? (How many of us have been the ones to address problems in this way?)

Usually, it’s from this position – ignited most often by an influential member of the team, or senior manager – that we see group-think setting in. This psychology term describes the desire for conformity within a group, which means that group members will eagerly embrace a suggestion that’s accepted by the majority or put forth by a senior figure without question. In many cases, it can lead to disastrous results, as John F. Kennedy found out when dealing with a State crisis. (He later learnt from his decision-making mistakes – a progress not all leaders make.)

I Don’t Know: A beginner’s mind

Conversely, having a starting position of “I don’t know” opens up a range of possibilities as an effort is made to cover all the angles and perspectives. Approaching a tough challenge with a beginner’s mind can make all the difference. To take a problem and consider the implications, possible solutions, and their after-effects is more likely to yield an effective solution than to immediately burst like a piñata that spews forth quick-fix solutions.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham H. Maslow

In taking a different approach to how we take problems on, we give ourselves an advantage by creating a solid foundation upon which a lasting solution can be built. It’s when we rush to solve major issues that we offer solutions which are built on shaky ground, and that’s when we create the conditions for similar problems to arise in the future.

Bringing “I Don’t Know” all together

It’s not easy for us humans to say, “I don’t know” – our natural impulse is to express, explain and elaborate on whatever thoughts that first pop into our minds. But what those wise philosophers of ancient Greece knew that most of us miss is that our initial thinking comes to us in its rawest form.
In order to get any value from our thinking, we have to cultivate, nurture and refine them through consideration and contemplation. It’s never a great strategy to simply throw our thoughts out there and hope something sticks.

Give it a try the next time you’re faced with a dilemma or a challenging obstacle to overcome. Notice if your mind rushes to throw out a tonne of ideas before you’ve even had time to properly consider what’s in front of you.

View the problem with a beginner’s mind, ask questions, consider the possibilities that arise after some deliberation, and see whether or not there’s a better solution that arises compared to when we rush desperately to try out the first thing that comes to mind.

Watch this short advice video from Roshan

To learn more about Roshan, click here

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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