You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

There are lots of old allegories and anecdotes about ignorance and wisdom.

“Plato’s Cave” is a particularly interesting one. In it, a group of people have spent their whole lives facing a wall in a cave, watching shadows on the wall cast by a fire and giving names to each of them. It’s all they know; the shadows are these people’s reality. 

It’s not until someone is freed from the cave and walks outside to see the depth of trees and animals and other people that they realize the shadows are just a projection of actual reality. It’s a little grim and archaic, admittedly — modern adaptations like The Matrix give it a fresher flare for sure. 

But, all of these stories are about being blindsided because we thought we knew something. When, really, you don’t know what you don’t know.

You don’t know what you don’t know” sounds…obvious. Right? 

Sure, it is. But it’s also critical. Keeping this mantra in mind as you work on a project will help you each step of the way — here’s three things that keeping this in mind will help you with:You’ll know what your client wants.

  1. You’ll know what your client wants.

You’re working on a project for a client. They’ve told you what they’re looking for, what the end product should look like, and you’re sketching out action items to get the job done.

When the time comes to present what you’ve got to the client, they cock their head, and say, “It’s missing something.” It’s a surprise requirement — something you didn’t even think to ask about. And while it’s easy to blame the client for the miscommunication, the relationship is two-sided. You need to know what you need to know to complete the project you’re working on. 

And you don’t know what you don’t know. So be prepared to ask! We’ve said before that communication is key to quality. Even if it seems like an odd question, it doesn’t hurt to ask if it means you’re getting the full picture and avoiding missing key details.

  1. Your client will know what they want.

That being said, asking questions and facilitating this kind of communication of course benefits the client as much as it does you. For example, you’re working on another project, and this time around, you ask: “Are there any colors you absolutely don’t want to be used?” The client cocks their head, but this time in a good way. 

They weren’t expecting the question, but “Come to think of it…” Turns out the color red wouldn’t have great associations for this project. Now, not only are you avoiding a mishap later on, but the client will appreciate that you’ve actually given them a clearer, more precise idea of what they’re looking for — just by communicating.

  1. You’ll give them the quality they deserve.

If you have a business, and you’re seeing clients, customers, or patrons, chances are you have impressive skills, experience, and wisdom in your field. We’re not denying that at all — those are your greatest assets!

The truth is, though, that no one knows everything. Here at CMW, we’ve been doing what we do for 30 years, and we’re still learning, accumulating new information and constantly trying to improve the way we help clients. It takes self-awareness and humility to admit that no experience will ever truly be enough to know everything that could possibly be thrown at you. And when you are blindsided by a new challenge, even in a type of project you’ve done a thousand times, it can come back to bite you in the final product.

Your top priority should be giving a client the highest quality you can give — if you’re not able to handle a request they give you, because of an incidental gap in knowledge or skill set, an open mind is essential to adapt to the situation, and find a solution. And an open mind is saying I don’t know what I don’t know.

Bottom line:

Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it doesn’t require attention. 

You don’t know what you don’t know” is one of our simplest but most effective tools in completing any project. Think about it:

  1. If you haven’t asked your client about a detail, it won’t be in the final product. 
  2. If your client hasn’t thought of something in their planning, it won’t be in the final product. 
  3. And if you think you know how to deal with a special request when you actually don’t, it won’t be in the final product. In any scenario, you’ll be presenting something that’s not the best work you can do — and isn’t what the client wants.

Communication, detail orientation, and self-awareness are all, in this case, essential to exceptional project results. Ask questions, check in, and check in again. 

Your client will appreciate your thoroughness, because it benefits you both. If there were a Matrix-style red pill that would illuminate everything, let you read your client’s mind, and give you an arsenal of every business skill in the book — that’s what we’d be blogging about. 

Yes, you don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s okay as long as you know it.

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