The Importance of Being Clueless

April 4th, 2013

This is one of the eight habits in Sahar Hashemi’s book, Switched On (1). I had the privilege to hear Sahar speak recently at a LMW event. Sahar told her personal story of how she and her brother created and built Cafe Republic and identified some of the lessons and insights that she had learnt along the way.

This habit requires leaders to ask the questions that others don’t and not to accept “No it can’t be done” as the default answer to new ideas or ways of doing things. Rather to continually enquire deeper and ask “why not” “why can’t we change this” “why can’t we do that” . It is about avoiding being stuck in the expert trap summed up nicely by the Henry Ford quote “go find me a 19 year old who doesn’t know it can’t go faster.” As Sahar puts it “Your skills, experience and ‘how we’ve always done it’ mentality will blind you from seeing new opportunities. Break from established thinking and un-learn so you stumble on new ways of doing things. This habit is vital to ensure that leaders continue to evolve, change and innovate.” There are plenty of once very successful organisations who followed this habit initially but then failed to continue to do so, Kodak being perhaps the most high-profile example recently.

I began to think about how this habit is important in the work that I do as an Executive Coach, Workplace Mediator and conflict management trainer. One of the great advantages of having a coach who is independent of the business,  is that the coach will be absolutely clueless. They will have little or no idea of the detail of the way the business has always operated, the history, the politics or the personalities involved so they have fewer blind spots. They are free to be and indeed it is their job to be clueless and to ask the questions that others either can’t or wont. I make no apologies to my clients for asking “stupid questions” . The stupid (or clueless) question can prompt the client to explain why things are done in a particular way or the barriers to achieving certain goals. The prompt to explain things to someone who is clueless can  in itself prompt the odd “aha” moment. If not then follow-up clueless questions will encourage new ways of looking at things or how barriers and obstacles might be overcome.

In a mediation situation, there is also great advantage in being clueless. Again a mediator comes with little or no knowledge of the background. This is an important principle to ensure independence and objectivity.  I have been asked when commissioned to undertake a mediation if I want to review background papers such as grievance files; my answer is always no. It is irrelevant to the mediation process and I want to hear things directly from the parties themselves. Also the paper files will not help me to understand the emotions involved and how the parties are feeling which is probably the most important aspect for each party to understand of each other. So being clueless about the history and background is important to me when going into a mediation.

In addition being clueless enables me to ask more clueless questions which can help individuals to view things from a different perspective. They can also illustrate how things can be interpreted in ways that were unintended. If parties begin to understand this it can be very powerful in helping to promote a level of understanding which is necessary before the parties can look towards a resolution for the future.

Conflict resolution models also depend on a level of cluelessness. For example when dealing difficult conversations, one model (2) talks about different levels of conversations, the “what happened”, the “feelings” and the “identity” levels. At each level to promote resolution and ensure full understanding it is necessary to move to a learning conversation. This is summed up very well as adopting an approach of “being curious” , essentially this means that you keep asking questions to verify statements in order to get to the real issues lying underneath any factual dispute or difference of viewpoint.  To me this has great similarities to Stephen Covey’s habit of “seek first to understand before being understood.”

So I am very heartened that my ability to be clueless has great advantages in the work that I do and I would encourage all managers and leaders to adopt this habit without delay as  it helps to gain understanding, new perspectives and innovation.  Just think, if Arthur Fry had accepted “No” and had not been clueless, none of us would have the post-it note let alone post-it note art and both 3M and the world would be a poorer place.


(1) Sahar Hemishi – Switiched On – You have it in you, you just need to switch it on. Capstone 2010

(2) Stone, Pattern & Heen  – Difficult Coversations – How to Discuss What Matters Most, Penguin 2000.

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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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