What To Do If You Don’t Know Everything


I remember very clearly the first time I was put in charge of an entire project – the planning, the staff, the customer, the contract, everything. That first day was certainly exciting, and while I was pretty sure I could do it, I was very, very wrong about one thing. That one mistake, had I not corrected it, could have contributed to failure on not only that project, but any future project I took on. What was the mistake? I thought it was my job to have all the answers.

Sounds silly to write that now, but it’s the truth. I was really worried that if I didn’t have an answer to someone’s question, they would think I didn’t know what I was doing. They would think I was in over my head, unqualified, a loser, etc. Pick your favorite criticism. That was a long time ago, and fortunately for me I had some wonderful mentors and colleagues, and they helped me quickly learn one of the most important secrets to success. Here it is: It’s not whether you know the answer, it’s how you handle the question.

So what does that mean? In summary (to paraphrase the serenity prayer) it means to know well what it’s important for you to know, understand how to manage what you don’t know, and be sure to know the difference. So how to you do this? Begin by being well versed in your professional skills. For me, this meant being strong in project management fundamentals. For example, my schedules and budgets were strong, with good bases of estimate behind them. I also had a good grasp of the customer, as I had some experience with them before. But what about all the stuff I didn’t know, like the technology and the area of business we were transforming? I came to realize that to be successful, it was my role to make decisions, secure resources, and support my team in completing their tasks. For me, “knowing the difference” is remembering to focus on the results and outcomes, and resist the urge to dig into the analysis or the technological solutions.

Surround yourself with people more knowledgeable than you. Whenever I am putting together a project, I try to find the smartest, most capable, and most knowledgeable people I can find. It is important to have a good mix of skillsets, experience, career level, and style. By assembling a really strong team, you have the beginnings of meaningful debates, good advice, and the ability to reach an exponentially larger pool of information and capabilities. As a project manager, you have access to a wide range of advice and options. It is true that sometimes having a team of high-performers can result in conflicts and competition, a good project manager maintains the standards of communication, makes sure everyone stays in their “swim-lane”, and that each team member is fully engaged in the appropriate project tasks.

Learn how to ask questions strategically. One of the biggest leadership competencies needed when managing “experts” is understanding how to talk with them. You certainly can’t learn their profession or expertise in order to understand them. What can you do? Rather than asking a single question, or asking “what should we do”, focus on having a progression of questions focused on decision making. Don’t focus on the how – that can get you down a rabbit hole of details that aren’t important to you as the project manager, and will often be too esoteric anyway. Instead, focus on understanding approaches, alternatives, risks and rewards, and outcomes. For example, assemble the work team, and have the team lead mostly speak for the team. Some questions you could start with include

  • How did you approach the problem?
  • What alternatives did you consider?
  • What are the top three options? Which option do you recommend? Why?
  • What options did you reject? Why?
  • Describe the biggest risk of each option.

These are somewhat generic, but hopefully this will be a starting point. Developing the skill of asking good questions will serve you well in any endeavor.

Develop a professional advisory committee. This is one of the most useful resources that every professional should have. In your career, you will build a network of colleagues that you like, respect, and trust. While it’s nice to meet for coffee or a cocktail from time to time, a better way to build your professional relationships is to reach out for advice and counsel, and provide such assistance in return. Use these friends as your sounding boards, as a way to verify assumptions or gut check your ideas. You are not asking them to do your work or make your decisions, but as another voice, another set of eyes, another viewpoint to make sure you aren’t missing something important. And if they’ve faced a similar situation, their advice will provide further information to support your decision making.

How you find out is more important than what you know. No human can know everything. Not only that, but you don’t know what you don’t know until you need to know it. There comes a point where you can learn to rely not on what you know, but your skills in learning and “finding out”. The biggest mistake I made on that first project was that because I thought I had to know everything, I said what I thought was probably true. Bad idea – I messed up a few times because of it. But then I learned that it was perfectly acceptable to say “I don’t know, but I know where to get the information you need. May I get back to you in the morning with the answer?” It is your professional responsibility to tell the truth. When I interview people for positions, I don’t usually ask much about what they know. Instead, I focus on how then approach problems, how they learn new information, and what they do when they make an error. This is the most important skillset for success. Being able to manage unknowns is a critical leadership skill, and project managers, in particular, must be well versed in it. Projects, by their nature, involve the new and untried in some fashion. That is why project management is so exciting. For leaders, it’s where true value-add is found. So whether you are a project manager, the leader of an organization, a domain expert, or all three, it’s not what you know, it’s how you manage the unknowns that matters most.