Saturday, March 28, 2015

Do You Know or Do You Understand

You've been fooled. We have ALL been fooled.

We were brought up in an education model that prizes knowing things.

If you proved in school that you know a thing, you got a gold star.

If you faced a list of ten things and proved that you knew 9 out of 10, we gave you a score and told you that it was good. We told you that if you knew fewer than 7 of the 10 things, you had failed.

The details, and the levels may vary, but don't get wrapped up in fascination about the margin of variance. The principle is, we taught you that knowing stuff was good and not knowing stuff was bad. We taught you that knowing more things made you better, and knowing fewer things made you less valuable.

We created a relationship to knowledge in our culture that prized knowing things as the gold standard, sometimes at the expense of understanding. Certainly, although we have sufficient means to measure understanding of a knowledge domain, we've failed to use those tools consistently, and we definitely missed the opportunity to place the emphasis there.


Don't get me wrong. I love facts. I insist on a context for discourse that is informed by prior art, citations, and access to definitive knowledge. But --- our predominant approach to education has created a world in which we might admire a car because of the tooling of its components and the quality of the materials used (the facts), but without concern for its performance on the road (the understanding).

Certainly knowing things is not the antithesis to understanding. Often in fact, it is the foundation. In the workplace, the developer who knows the inputs and behaviors of an API call, or the materials engineer who knows the tensile strength and optimal temperature range for a substance, or a broadcast engineer who knows the placement and behavior of his board controls ... all of these workers have an edge over someone who must find these facts by consulting a reference. Knowing things is generally good as long as we don't deify it in isolation, and as long as we are aware of the costs.

One cost is creativity. When we know things, we tend to neglect ideas that live beyond the range that (we perceive) the knowledge implies. We already know what's possible, so we're disinclined to look further. I once worked on a filmmaking project, and our cinematographer was certain that he knew the operating limits of the camera we were using. He did know them. So when we needed to shoot a scene in the dark around a real campfire (because we lacked the budget for the lighting tools that could simulate a campfire), he balked because he was completely certain that the footage would not come out.

But our director didn't know the limits of the camera and she did know that we needed the scene. So through a combination of focused reflectors, seating the actors uncomfortably close to the fire, and very close up shots, we were able to get the scene, to a great extent because the director was not blinded by knowledge of the technical constraints.

Another cost of deifying knowledge is perspective. Sometimes when we are overly impressed with our command of a knowledge domain, we fail to consider the input and ideas from someone who is in possession of fewer facts on the matter.

I once held responsibility for software development on a large project with high visibility and spent a great deal of time working with my marketing counterpart (the Product Manager) on the progress of the project. At a certain point, I was stalled by a problem that I could not unravel. My marketing partner asked me about the problem with the intention of helping me break the logjam. I snorted at the suggestion because I was a knowledgeable and accomplished C programmer and she was merely a marketing (insert your favorite pejorative here) who was concerned mostly with fonts and color palettes.

When I got over myself (mostly because of her dogged persistence) and explained the programming issue, we both leapt to a solution within a very short period of time. Although she didn't have the command of facts that I possessed as a working programmer, she did have sufficient understanding of the process to suggest an approach that would isolate the problem I faced.

One additional cost of having an inappropriate reverence for knowledge is connection. Certainly there is a powerful affinity that comes from having shared an experience or having acquired a common body of knowledge. Two people having just met, and who discover a commonality such as both having participated on a championship team in the same sport, or who have both worked in the same emerging industry, will find themselves immediately able to relate to one another.

Occasionally the connection does come from mutual possession of certain facts. If both have discovered that this fact is ironic, and that fact is profound, and another fact is perversely unlikely but true, they will quickly discover common ground.

But our reverence for possession of facts can also drive us to hide the areas in which we lack knowledge. That results in isolation. This is a lesson I learned from being in front of the classroom. In my time as a corporate educator, I noticed two compelling things. The first was that as a colleague would engage with the craft and begin to form a personal approach to training delivery for corporate professionals, almost every one of them would develop a strategy for downplaying, or deflecting, or circumventing questions to which they didn't know the answer. There was a vigorous marketplace in the trade of tactics and tricks for handling questions.

The other thing I noticed was that when I would use those tactics too often in a classroom, my students would begin to grow distant. They would sit apart from me at lunch, fail to meet my eye on the breaks, and begin to rely on one another more than on me to explain things they wanted to know. Every time I postured, or played off the fact that I didn't have a ready answer, it actually eroded the sense they might have that I had an understanding of the matter.

But I also discovered that if I understood the knowledge domain sufficiently, there was a phrase that would give me power in those moments when I didn't possess a particular fact that someone wanted to know. I found that this phrase worked in just about any working context, and even in simple personal situations such as cocktail parties or at a networking mixer. So in business, in sales, in creative work, and in the corporate classroom, this phrase gave me power far beyond that of someone with a mountain of facts at their disposal.

"You know, I don't know the answer to that. Let's explore it together."

When I discovered the power of that phrase, my career transformed. My results improved dramatically, and my professional network began to mushroom to include legions of new business associates who rely on me for answers and perspective.

I invite you to use that phrase today. Because if you are like virtually anyone I've ever met or worked with, you are like us. We don't really know. But we might be able to understand.