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Improving Your Response When You Don’t Know the Answer.

This is what you’ve been waiting for, a chance to advance. You’ve prepared for this. And then it happens: they ask something unexpected and you don’t know the answer. 

You’re doing your job and having a good day completing your to-do list. Out of the blue the boss calls and asks you about something you had planned on getting to later. But right now, you don’t know and the Boss wants an answer.

Whatever you say, don’t let “I don’t know” mean “I don’t care.” 

The perils of “I don’t know.” (Painting: The Death of Socrates)

Knowing the limits of our knowledge is a sign of wisdom and intelligence. Failure to effectively convey those limits is a disaster. 

We still study Socrates, who’s wisdom is timeless.  The Dunning-Kruger effect is the newest version of what Socrates did over 2000 years ago. Socrates knew the limits to his own knowledge and through constant questioning learned that people who thought they knew, really didn’t. 

“I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”

Socrates is also put on trial for his constant questioning. He serves as his own lawyer and attempts to convey his wisdom to the jury.

They sentence Socrates to death.

This is no accident.  “I don’t know” agitates, annoys, and angers. And while we are unlikely to suffer Socrates’ fate, we constantly face professional judgment.

  • The Boss asks us about a project or report. 
  • The Board asks about a hypothetical future problem.
  • The interviewer asks if you have any questions.

In each case, the odds of ignorance are against us.  They can ask anything; we can’t know everything.  Sooner or later, our ignorance will be exposed and we feel we’ll suffer the consequences. 

  • I won’t get that raise.
  • The Board might lose faith in me.
  • I won’t get hired.

So how do we turn a blank fiasco into a productive encounter?

There is no shortage of specific examples on how to respond when we don’t know.

The same goes for advice about asking questions.

  • Harvard Business Review tells us that the way towards becoming knowledgeable starts with two key questions: “Why” and “Can you give me an example?” 
  • Forbes tells us the two mistakes in an interview are to say, “Tell me about your company” and “No I don’t have any Questions.”

For both sides of Question and Answer, current advice gives us a list of things to remember, but nothing that connects them.  We are left to pick and choose responses like reading from a teleprompter, and people can tell. 

People can tell because, parroting words captures only half of the communication picture. Aristotle tells us that effective communication is speaking both words (logos) and conveying emotions (pathos). In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to focus on the words and forget about the emotions. Even in cooler times it is no easy thing – so advice sticks to specific words and phrases, leaving us with only a vague feeling of a feeling as to what we truly need to do.

Philosophy can help here, and 18th century Scottish philosophy holds the key. Seriously.
In the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith we find the essence of what we really need to do when answering any question, every question – including one’s we don’t know.

With questions, we are responding both to a specific request and to the fact that this person cared enough to ask. Something is bothering the questioner, and they have reached out to another person to relieve their discomfort. Whether they admit it or not, a question is an admission that they either cannot, or do not want to, solve this issue by themselves. We are social, not solitary creatures. Asking questions is a way we form bonds with others and become meaningful team players, to be heard by someone else. David Hume identifies the unifying desire all questions seek to satisfy.

“Reduce a person to solitude, and he loses all enjoyment, except either of the sensual or speculative kind; and that because the movements of his heart are not forwarded by correspondent movements in his fellow-creatures.” (Hume EPM 131-2)

We seek understanding, not only of the words but of how we feel about those words. And we know when we find those correspondent movements of the heart because in that moment we know, we feel, that we understand each other. 

Ever get stuck in an uncomfortable silence with someone you want to talk to?  Asking a question is a good way to get things moving.  Why?  Because the Q&A pattern is a way for both parties to know the other is listening too. A really good question will get people on the same “wavelength,”1 a pleasant experience where you come to realize you are not alone in your thoughts and feelings. That you are being understood. When this happens, the Q&A transforms from a me and you, into a ‘we’ and ‘us.’

A question is fundamentally an opportunity to form a bond, become a ‘we’ instead of two “I”s. The precise words we choose for an answer is open so long as we keep in mind that our goal is to join with questioner on this problem. This is perhaps the goal of any conversation, but why forget it when it comes to business? Because money is on the line?  Maybe, but the way to wealth is working with other people and a question is an excellent opportunity to work with someone else – even when we don’t know the answer.

The skill is making this transformation intentional, and not just leaving it to chance. We can learn this skill. Adam Smith identifies the reason why questions are a team effort, and we can use this insight to improve how we respond. 

A question is a complaint, someone complaining that they don’t know. And, whether they realize it or not, underneath asking us for specific information, they are asking us to share in their complaint. This is the nature of the bond, and Smith tells us why this is so very important.

“It is to be observed accordingly, that we are still more anxious to communicate to our friends our disagreeable than our agreeable passions, that we derive still more satisfaction from their sympathy with the former than from that with the latter, and that we are still more shocked by the want of it.”  (TMS P1,S1,C1)

People like to share their passions.  It’s enjoyable to share the things we like and pleasant when others like the same thing.  But often, that’s not necessary. I can share my good time playing pool while you share yours of having a good run that morning. We don’t really need to agree on the specifics when we share our joys. You don’t need to like pool and I don’t need to like running.  It helps if we like the same things, but we can still form a bond by sharing different things we enjoy. Complaints, on the other hand, are a whole different experience.

People like to complain, and we like to complain in company that shares our perspective about the specific thing we are complaining about. We feel the urge to express our disagreeable passions, and the need to have those feelings verified and shared by others. Misery loves company … and despises critics. It is with sharing disagreeable feelings that we make allies and enemies.

Think of it, why is the proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and NOT “The friend of a friend is my friend”?  It is agreement of what disturbs us that draws the line.

Questions are complaints. We ask a question when something is missing, and it bothers us enough to actually express that feeling.  We care about what we are asking because we are uncomfortable with what we don’t know. We’re not looking for someone to disagree with us. We are looking for someone to help alleviate the unknown. The questioner

“comes from considering the object, to observe how I am affected by it, according as there is more or less disproportion between his sentiments and mine, I must incur a greater or less degree of his disapprobation: and upon all occasions his own sentiments are the standards and measures by which he judges of mine.” (TMS1,1,3)

When someone asks you a question, they want to see if you care about the matter like they do. It is not answering the specifics of the question that matter so much as matching the feelings of the person who asks the question. And it is their feelings that establish the benchmark for a good answer, not yours.

  • The Boss, asking about the report, is asking about whether you cared enough to either know its contents or ensure its work-flow progress. What the report says, or exactly where it is, are both secondary to whether you care enough to know or find out.
  • The interviewer, asking if you have any more questions, is not asking whether your list of questions has been exhausted. She is asking “did you care enough to find out anything that we wouldn’t normally cover in an interview”?
  • The Board asking hypothetical questions isn’t asking for specific solutions. They might not know a solution if it bit them. They are asking whether the CEO cares about the company the way they do: “I’ve been thinking about the possibilities … have you?”

A good answer forms a bond by sharing in the same level of concern as the person asking the question.

By itself, “I don’t know” is neutral and conveys no sentiment of caring. It is the emotional opposite of a question. Alone, it is an indication that you neither care about the issue nor the questioner’s interest. Attentive people usually try to correct for the former but often not the latter. In the moment we get lost in the weeds. We focus on answering the particulars of the question and neglect the main task – answering the person who asked.

It’s not the fact that’s at issue, the fact of not knowing, it’s the response.  “I don’t know” lacks the same sentiment as the questioner.  “I don’t know” is neutral.  It conveys neither approval nor disapproval – it conveys no sentiment, and that’s the problem.  The questioner cares about the issue, her question is evidence of that, and your response needs to be foremost a recognition of that importance. What facts you know are secondary.

The facts are secondary?  Yes. Consider, next time someone you know asks a question you do know the answer to and just give them the bare answer, nothing else.  A question is a chance to engage, and a blunt, even terse, answer indicates a lack of desire to engage.  Worse, answer the question and then walk away.  Walking away is rude, not because you didn’t answer but because you failed to consider the most important part of the question – someone reaching out to you with something they care about. You’ve answered the question but destroyed any hope of forming a mutual bond.

The same pattern holds for asking good questions. 

Forming a good question is not about the specific thing you are asking about. A good question is one that shows you care as much as the person you are asking. You are complaining to them that you do not know and giving them the chance to share in that complaint and form a bond by relieving it.

Who determines whether it is a good question? The listener, the receiver, the person to whom you are asking the question. What explains a good question from a bad one? Whether your question matches their level of concern.

  • HBR’s two questions both tap into what the other person finds important.  Asking someone who is knowledgeable “why” or asking for an example indicate you are interested in something they care about. Ask a person about their passion or hobby and see for yourself their reaction.
  • In the Forbes’s example, poor interview questions convey a total lack of interest.  Formulating good questions takes time and research.  It’s a skill and takes work. Not having a good question simultaneously conveys the interviewee doesn’t care and they are not willing to work.  That’s a high impact mistake, and it’s easy to correct – if you really do want the job.

The question you hear is not what you are being asked.

What you’re really being asked, in any question, is to work with someone on a problem you mutually find important. So, while you’re thinking about answering what they said, take a moment to judge why they asked it: This person needs to work with you. This is your chance to show them you want to work with them. Remember a question is a complaint people want you to understand, first-and-foremost, by sharing their level of concern. Your biggest enemy is perceived indifference.

Whatever you say, don’t let “I don’t know” mean “I don’t care.” 

Effective Analogies are Made of Good Judgment.

Good analogies go beyond similar physical features.  If you want people to hear you, and maybe even be swayed by your reasoning, make sure that your comparisons are roughly equal in intensity and judgment.  Otherwise, no-one hears what you have to say.

Not all broken windows are the same.

Both sides of a good analogy contain a similar “intensity.” For example, Digiorno Pizza is as good as ordering takeout.  A good analogy because neither side of the comparison is ‘out of its league’.   A certain humility of comparison makes for their effective tagline “It’s not delivery, It’s Digiorno’s” 

What if, though, they thought they could make an EVEN BIGGER impression by comparing their pizza to something even better?  After all, if comparing it to takeout raises the estimation of frozen pizza a little, comparison to something really grand will raise it even more!  More is better, right?  So why not say Digiorno’s Pizza is as good as a 3-star Michelin  restaurant?

That would make our product sound even better! 

No, no it doesn’t.

Witness what happens to the tagline:  “It’s not Emeril, It’s Digiorno’s”.   In the earlier analogy, the quality-proximity of the two lifts our opinion of the frozen pizza.  Take-out pizza is good. It is believable that a frozen pizza could be that good.  It does not jar the mind to think that a frozen pizza may be as good as what I’m ordering from the pizza place, and a bit cheaper too.  We are able to entertain the framework that frozen pizza is (or may be) like takeout. 

Now let’s look at the ‘spiced up’ analogy. Would comparing frozen pizza to the best pizza possible put our frozen pizza on the all-time hit list of pizza’s?  The answer is no, and it is apparent immediately in the new tagline: 

“It’s not Emeril, It’s Digiorno’s”. 

A great tagline now becomes an insult to the poor frozen pizza. Why?

People might like Emeril’s pizza better than takeout.  So, that’s not what’s wrong with this analogy. 

Michelin star chefs cook pizza. So, that’s not what’s wrong with the analogy. 

The problem is Michelin star cooking is so far above *anything* frozen, that the comparison is a bad joke. To paraphrase from Billy Madison “We are all dumber for hearing it”.

How good the analogy is here has nothing to do with the physical similarities. It’s not a good analogy, because the “intensity” of the two experiences is so different that people do not feel the analogy. The judgment is so bad it is jarring.  It’s like a giant pothole in the middle of a sentence.  Reading along … “hey this isn’t so bad … BAM … what the hell was that”? 

Big potholes ruin the road and become a point of hyperfocus for criticism.  Big potholes are stupid and offensive. They are so jarring they eclipse anything else you have to say. Nothing else gets heard.  and the plausible idea that the frozen pizza was tasty, is now erased. 

Unfortunately, this happens in ethics all the time.  Somebody perceives something wrong.  They want to raise awareness of this immorality.  Like any analogy, in order to make the comparison we find elements of both things that are similar – e.g. two examples that both involve legislative buildings, or two examples that both involve broken glass.  The mistake is not in this physical comparison. The mistake is believing that raising awareness requires comparison to the worst thing possible that contains those physical similarities.    

With the physical similarities firmly in place, we are ready to make our knock-out argument against the current immorality. —– and it fails every time. 

Mind you, people who already agree with you may cheer the analogy, but that doesn’t make it a good analogy or argument. 

People who disagree with you will attack the analogy.  But that doesn’t make it a bad analogy. (But did you have to give them that ammunition?) 

No, what makes it a bad analogy is that it fails to move the neutral bystander – the person on the fence. 

“I was thinking about trying that frozen pizza, but that comparison is not even plausible.  I don’t trust it.”  – trust brings people close to accepting your framework, if they lose trust in your interpretation of the event they lose trust in your judgment.

The entire argument is now “wrong” because it comes from a person of such flawed judgment.  And once again note, the similarity dispute is not over the physical description, but about the similarity of severity.  It’s about the judgment that places these two things on the same level.  Now it’s not just a flawed argument, it’s a lack of credibility. “Who can believe them after they said this!” And while it’s not a valid inference to go from the argument to the person like that, we need to realize it still happens -every time. In these cases the credibility of the argument and the author hang or fall together.

Today we have yet another example of what I am warning against. 

Arnold Shwarzenegger made a video about what happened at the U.S. Capitol Building recently.  It’s actually well spoken, and the message is a pretty good one.  But in this case Mr. Shwarzenegger compares what happened at the U.S. Capitol Building to Kristallnacht – because both instances contained broken glass, and Arnold experience both countries. 

He makes this comparison very early in the video.  The consequences are sad and predictable.  You can see for yourself.  How many people don’t get past the analogy and never hear what else he has to say?  I’m posting the thread here, check out the comments.  You can also check out the comment threads of news outlets for further verification: people balked at the analogy, got no further in the argument, and didn’t let that stop them from criticizing what they never heard.

Good analogies go beyond physical features. If you want people to hear you, and maybe even be swayed by your reasoning, make sure that your comparisons are roughly equal in intensity and judgment.  Otherwise, no-one hears what you have to say.    

Business Museums: A Different Destination

I need something to look forward to.

When things open again, I want to travel … to business museums.

So, I’d like to ask for your assistance.

I have visited a few and really enjoyed them. It would be fun to go to more, but I am not aware of any business museum travel books.

There are many business museums, and I do not know them all. Do you know of a business museum worth seeing? If so, would you add it to the comments? Do you have a particular experience you wish to share? Please do. This is a chance for a good conversation about something fun. I don’t know about you, but it’s the kind of conversation I could use these days.

I’m hoping that together we create an interesting trip, even if we can’t go right now. Something to look forward to. Something to daydream a little about. Something to put a smile on our faces.

I’ll start with a list of business museums I know of and can’t wait to visit:

My starting list of Business museums includes:

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
This museum is dedicated to the first all-black union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).

Pullman Chicago
The very same Pullman the BSCP organized against also built a town. A famous town. An experiment to supposedly improve the lives of the workers at Pullman. People want their companies to be socially responsible – Pullman is simultaneously an inspirational and cautionary tale.

The Walmart Museum

The story is incredible. The company a giant. It has to be on my list.

The Museum of American Finance
Yes, there is a museum, and it is a Smithsonian affiliate. One reason I love this museum is the artwork on early stocks and bonds is gorgeous. I’ve bought a few over the years to hang on the walls.

The World of Coca-Cola
I LOVE Diet Coke. That’s one of my values that makes me smile. This is a huge museum dedicated to a product I love. I must go.

Amazon Tour
Ok, this is not a museum, per se, but it looks awesome. The virtual tour is cool, I wonder what it will be like in person.

Waffle House
Seriously, how have I not been here yet? One wonders if museum peak times would be between 2 and 6 … a.m. lol

Who knows, maybe someday we’ll meet at one of these. 🙂

#businesstravel #tourism

Be Proactive: Look to the Past

As we look to begin 2021, how will we approach the problems we are going to face?  Will we be caught off guard, or will we prepare ourselves by taking a moment to realize that most problems, in their essence, are not new.  That we can have a plan. 

How can looking to the past be proactive?

Let’s look at it in reverse.  News, articles, and books written today are produced to sell.  They must be interesting, and to be interesting they need to be something people are thinking about now. 

Here is a virus and a host of public policies – how do we react to them?  Here is a market downturn – how should we react?  Here is a terrorist bombing – what will we do?  The event, the thing, happens first, then we think about it, then we form our plan to deal with it.  This is reactive thinking. 

We try this, we try that, looking for anything that “works”.  In our search we feel inundated with different stories and strategies. I have heard more than one frustrated person say, “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”  Without a map we can easily become lost or, worse yet, convinced the road we’re on is the right one.

Effective reaction requires a map, a map provided by context.

Context provides coherence to our actions and ensures we are not working against ourselves instead of solving the problem.  We, as people trying to do our best, need to bring that context to the problem.   Current events reporting, modern surveys, and the latest updates in our field, will not provide us with context.

Context frames how a problem is similar to others and is the foundation of why we can seek help.  We can find this similarity by reading those who have thought about it before us or lived through something similar.   

Here are some examples.

Waffle House

Waffle House has a proactive plan for hurricanes.  They are so good at this, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) created an unofficial “Waffle House Index” to judge Hurricane impact severity.  

How are they able to do it? Recognizing the difference between risk and uncertainty, Waffle House does not treat each storm as a completely new event.

 A completely new event has no comparison. This is uncertainty.  Once a hurricane is plotted, though, risk comes into the picture.  Risk is being able to assign probabilities to events.  It’s how insurance works.  It’s why disaster plans are effective. Waffle House turns what others see as uncertainty into a context of assessing risk. 

The difference between risk and uncertainty can be found in Frank Knight’s “Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit” (1921).  A nearly 100 yr. old book that provides business with an essential difference between what can be planned, and what cannot.

Bar Rescue

In the T.V. show Bar Rescue, Jon Taffer does not look at each bar as totally new and different.  The intro to the show tells us “Running a bar is not just a business; it’s a science.  No one knows more about bar science than Jon Taffer.” 

Seriously, Bar Science?!?!? 

Yes, and I believe it.  Why?

Because in 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.”  Central to this managerial science is calculating the time it takes for employees to do the different parts of their job: A time and motion study. 

Every episode of watching Bar Rescue is like watching a time and motion study in action.  His context is seeing each bar as an opportunity to apply the same method.  His context is also using the principles of a more than 100 yr. old book and theory not to just to make bartenders more efficient, but to create his own entrepreneurial brand, Bar Rescue.  That’s being proactive, and incredibly successful.

Ryan Holiday

Finally, looking to the past is the genius of such current writers as Ryan Holiday.  Holiday draws on the Stoic philosophers to show us how in journaling, meditating, and reading about Great Persons Like Marcus Aurelius, we prepare ourselves for life’s future obstacles.  We place ourselves in a mental frame of mind that understands the recurring nature of human problems, contextualizes them, and assigns them meaning within our broader life. 

He has also built a very successful brand on looking to the past.

Be proactive, look to the past.

#strategy #management

Photo: New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. (1935). Great Kills, Shelves and stool Retrieved from

Why You Should Read Business Success Stories

People talk of cabin fever, but more and more the worry is over what we might call “cabin despair.”

There is more outside than we realize.

Winter cold usually keeps us in, and Covid restrictions have taken away our remaining options to get out and expand our world.  As our world shrinks we experience fewer of the people and things we value.  This robs us of inspiration, motivation, and hope.  Without this fuel we start to wonder how tomorrow holds anything worth the effort. 

There is no single solution to the effects of increasing isolation.  Friends and family are most important, of course.  But since this is a blog about business, I’d like to take a walk in that direction.   

In, “On the Nature of Things”, Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius tells us “There is nothing that exists so great or marvelous that over time mankind does not admire it less and less.” 

Lucretius’s insight is that looking only at the present restricts our world.  We see only what is in front of us, like the four walls of our room, we take things for granted and rob ourselves of the values we could find.

We tend not to think much about the businesses that provide the things we want and need.  We pay.  We get. We go on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s how life usually goes, but life is not going usually these days.  By looking at the story of a business we can see the innovation, the struggle, and the courage it took to find the business solutions we now take for granted. There are even clues for how to do better business today — how to bring value into the world.

We can access these stories from home.  Two of my favorites have been “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger” by Marc Levinson and a small book about the rise of a regional gas station/convenience store in Western Pennsylvania: “Made to Order: The Sheetz Story” by Kenneth Womack. 

And this is the point: we’ve all seen shipping containers and gas stations.  We got the things we ordered.  We bought gas and candy.  So what?  So read the stories and see how these are human creations and you may well find something of value in the world beyond the four walls we seem trapped in today.  

The Nature of Business

“Ask yourself, what is this thing in itself, by its own special constitution? What is it in substance, and in form, and in matter? What is its function in the world? For how long does it subsist?” Marcus Aurelius

After teaching business ethics for many years, I realized that a person’s view of what business is affects their view of what business should do just as much as their beliefs on morality.

The thought struck me as I was watching the film Goodfellas. In this segment a restaurant owner has willingly partnered with the mob for “help” with his business. Watching the movie, we may sympathize with the owner, but we also need to realize (as the owner soon does) the essential difference between business activity and criminal activity is trading for value.

This is the distinction criminal characters deliberately ignore throughout the movie. For example, in this clip, between 24 and 42, the narrator explains how the mob boss can use a legitimate business as collateral, the restaurant, to take out loans he has no intention of repaying. The narrator explains this is how you buy a 200-dollar case of booze on credit and sell it for 100 dollars and keep the cash. The punchline? “It doesn’t matter, it’s all profit!”


Profit is a value adding activity that takes place through trading. What this clip is describing is no more profit than mugging an old lady and claiming the quarter you got was pure profit.

Consistently in conversations, films, and novels, business is equated with immorality or downright evil.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is misidentifying the nature of things. It makes a good thing look bad and a bad thing look good. When criminals use the phrase “I’m just doing business” it morally elevates their actions while simultaneously degrading the moral value of business. It tempts those in business to view criminal activities as port of their skill portfolio. This is not the road to success.

Those who think there is no difference between business and crime, as long as it makes money, risk making the same mistake the restaurant owner makes in Goodfellas. Spoiler alert: It’s not a good ending.

To succeed and thrive we must know what we are doing. Our goals and purposes are not determined independently, so too should our choice on how we pursue those goals. Business is a way of pursuing our goals and the goals of those we serve. Business is solving problems – that’s the value creation. The solution is valuable enough that other people are willing to pay for it – that’s the trade.

Creating value others are willing to trade for is the essence of business. This should be repeated to owners, employees, customers, governments, and society. If it is not, there is the real risk they will believe business is like crime, and act accordingly.