Know What You Don’t Know

How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen


Michael A. Roberto

Wharton School Publishing, 2009, 202 pp.   ISBN 978-0-13-156815-0



Michael Roberto is a Professor of Management at Bryant University and a former faculty member at Harvard Business School.  He is the author of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer (2005).  Great leaders need to go beyond problem solving to identifying the small issues and anticipating the next big problems.  Roberto identifies seven sets of skills to become efficient problem finders.


“In real life according to McNamara, the leader first must discover the problem.  He or she must figure out what problem needs to be solved before beginning to make decisions.  McNamara explained that identifying the true problem facing an organization often proved to be the most difficult challenge that leaders face.  In many instances leaders do not spot a threat until far too late.  At times, leaders set out to solve the wrong problem.”  (Preface)


1. From Problem-Solving to Problem-Finding

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution.  It’s that they can’t see the problem.” (1, quoting G. K. Chesterton)


“Small problems often precede catastrophes.  In fact, most large-scale failures result from a series of small errors and failures, rather than a single root cause.” (4)  Minor failures may serve as early warnings of big trouble ahead.  Problems often remain hidden too long.  And problems must be found before they can be addressed. 


Problems are not usually viewed positively but we should embrace them.  Any failure can be viewed as a window into the system that signals other possible weaknesses.  Toyota empowered every plant worker to be a problem spotter and quality soared as Toyota detected and addressed problems earlier than other manufacturers.  However, the firm’s explosive growth may have strained its production system. 


Problems stay hidden for several reasons.  In many organizations people do not feel comfortable speaking up.  Some organizations are so complex that key messages get lost or are filtered out by gate keepers. People don’t trust their hunches or they are not trained to spot and communicate problems.  And sometimes it is just difficult to distinguish the signals of trouble from background noise. 


2. Circumvent the Gatekeepers

People at various levels in the organization filter information for a variety of reasons.  Leaders should be concerned that they may be shielded from key problems.  We can’t bring everything to the boss, so we filter.  We may feel that the leader has already made up his mind and we don’t want to buck him.  We tend to give high higher credibility to information that supports our views and discount data that doesn’t.  And we are more likely to pass on information that bolters our position.


“Leaders clearly must create a climate in which people feel comfortable coming forward with new data, even data that might go against the dominant view in the organization.”  “They have to reach down and out, beyond the executive suite and even beyond the walls of the organization, to access new data directly.” (35) 


Some strategies: Listen to key constituents with your own ears.  Seek different voices.  Connect with young people to learn about new trends and views in society.  Go to the periphery, geographically, to learn what people are saying.  Talk to noncustomers, nonemployees, nonsuppliers, and even job applicants who turned you down.


3. Become an Ethnographer

“Rely less on focus groups and much more on direct observation of how consumers behave in their natural environments….”   (53)  There is often a very low correlation between what people say they would do and what they do; they say one thing but do another.  First hand observation must be part of your toolkit.  Get out and look. 


At Proctor and Gamble, “Senior leaders leave their offices and go out into the field regularly so that they can see the problems and product flaws that must be addressed to satisfy customer needs.”   (56)


“Effective leaders become adept at watching how customers shop, employees work, and competitors behave. … They become careful and systematic observers of people, processes, and facilities.” (62-3)  


When you talk with people, use open-ended inquiries and avoid leading questions.  Listen more than you talk.  The more you talk, the less you hear. Seek out and track the things that surprise you.  Look for anomalies, exceptions, and contradictory evidence.  Synthesize what you learn.  List the problems and potential solutions you uncover and bounce your ideas off others.


4. Hunt for Patterns

Highly experienced workers spot problems early.  They may not be able to explain how.  They simply develop instincts, intuition. Intuition is fundamentally pattern recognition.  They notice when the situation doesn’t fit their past experience.  Intuition develops gradually with experience.  It’s worthwhile to pay attention to that intuition. 


Leaders sometimes look at a current situation, opportunity, or problem and identify patterns and solutions based on a past experience, when, in fact, the situations are not analogous.  They may focus on the similarities and miss the fundamental differences.  Executives appear especially vulnerable when they have had a great past success.  They tend to apply the same strategy when the current situation calls for a different one.  “The lesson is simple: We can and should hunt for patterns all the time, but beware—we do not always make the right matches.  Sometimes, we force matches where a pattern does not fit because we have a hammer in search of a nail.” (84)


Table 4.1 Scrutinizing Our Assumptions: Seven Key Questions  (p. 85)

1.    What are the facts in this situation?

2.  What issues remain ambiguous or uncertain?

3.   What explicit and implicit assumptions have we made?

4.  Have we confused facts with assumptions?

5.   How would an outsider with an unbiased perspective evaluate each of our assumptions?

6.  How would our conclusions change if each of our key assumptions proves incorrect?

7.   Can we collect data, conduct a simple experiment, or perform certain analysis to validate or disprove crucial assumptions?


5. Connect the Dots

Looking back on 9/11, “The Joint Inquiry by the U.S. Senate and House Intelligence Committees faulted all the agencies of the intelligence community for a lack of adequate information sharing.”  (101) 


“Conflicting goals and objectives among differentiated units inevitably lead to ‘thick walls’ among the ‘silos’ inside some organizations.”  (102)  “…competition can become destructive, with one unit benefiting at another’s expense, while collaborative opportunities fall by the wayside.”  “For many firms, the lack of integration does not prove costly until a substantial shift occurs in the external environment.  That turbulence, and the new threats it creates, often require much more information sharing and coordination among differentiated units.” (103)


“The failure to adequately share, discuss, and analyze uniquely held information inhibits the effectiveness of group problem-solving.”  This can occur even in small groups and it is worse when members have divergent goals.  (105) 


Leaders must overcome information-sharing barriers.  In group discussions they can ensure that a few people don’t dominate and seek out the quiet members.  They can reiterate ideas that did not receive enough attention.  They can ask clarifying questions.  They can encourage people to express alternative viewpoints.  And they can highlight areas of remaining uncertainty.   (108)  “Leaders can foster the formation and development of social networks through activities such as job rotation programs, the creation of informal gathering places, off-site retreats, and leadership development programs.” (110) 


Shift to a “prevent first” mindset.  In regard to the FBI, “The agent’s job now isn’t just to arrest bad guys.  It is to understand everything in the terrorist’s head, everything around him, so that we can understand his world and the world of those around him…” (112) 


“All leaders who want to become better problem-finders have to accomplish this shift in mindset.  They have to make detecting problems a priority, rather than simply making heroes of those who put out the fires in the organization.” (113)  They must hone their thinking skills, the ability to synthesize opposing ideas and discordant information, searching relentlessly for less obvious but relevant factors.  They have to avoid assuming simple linear cause-and-effect relationships, recognizing that most outcomes have multiple causes.  They become integrative thinkers, seeing problems as a whole.  And they avoid simple either-or choices.  (114)


6. Encourage Useful Failures

Failures provide keen insights that enable the invention of unique products.  You almost have to do something the wrong way to discover something new.  Watching why something fails can put you on an innovative path. (120) 


Problem-finding requires a positive mindset toward failure.  If people fear punishment they are unlikely to admit mistakes.  And without understanding where and how mistakes occur, leaders cannot spot patterns and trends or connect the dots among incidents to identify major threats.  (121)  Heightened tolerance of failure surfaces errors and encourages experimentation.  We must make people comfortable with admitting mistakes while avoiding finger pointing.  And we have to lead by example, admitting our own mistakes! 


“Some failures may be tolerated; others should not be.  Most executives do not have a clear set of criteria for differentiating the unacceptable failures from the ones that may be useful learning opportunities.”  “Leaders need to examine how individuals behaved before, during, and after the failure….  They must examine how people reacted and adapted as the plan veered off course.  Finally, leaders need to evaluate how individuals behaved in the aftermath of the failure, particularly the extent to which they accepted responsibility for their mistakes and tried to learn from them.” (125)


Firms “should look for their own low-risk, low-cost opportunities to spark innovation and creativity, while simultaneously developing and evaluating young, talented employees.  After all, when failures are costly, no leader wants to tolerate them.  The most useful failures enable us to learn quickly and inexpensively.” (134)


7. Teach How to Talk and Listen

“It’s not what you tell them…it’s what they hear.”—Arnold “Red” Auerbach (139)


Some communication errors:  Senders omit key information or provide biased information.  They may be in a hurry or assume what the listener already knows.  Senders ignore nonverbal cues. They speak too quickly, not giving listeners time to digest what they have heard and ask clarifying questions.  They neglect to repeat important messages or emphasize key ideas.  They assume they have been heard and understood.  They assume silence is assent and no feedback means support.


Receivers make up their minds in advance, begin working out their response instead of listening, jump to conclusions, attribute wrong intentions or motives, miss nonverbal signals, fail to ask for clarification, and multitask thus missing key thoughts.  (146)


Leaders must improve their communication with others: they must become teachers and take responsibility for developing the interpersonal communication skills of their subordinates.  (147)


Some keys for speaking more effectively include the following.  Know your audience.  Understand their history and who will feel threatened.  Seek allies who will support your perspective.  Work through key confidants and gatekeepers, those who have the ear of the people you must persuade.  Focus first on divergent thinking, encouraging people to think freshly about the situation.  Present alternative solutions, looking for the best.  (154) 


8. Watch the Game film

“Athletes not only study film on the competition; they watch themselves perform too.  They study film of their own performances to identify problems and flaws.” (163)


“In fact, research shows that individuals in many different fields achieve greatness through hard work, not simply raw talent.  However, research shows that it takes a particular type of preparation to truly excel; scholars have described it as ‘deliberate practice.’ … Some individuals work very hard, but they adopt the wrong practice techniques.  Research demonstrates that elite performers engage in an immense amount of highly effective ‘deliberate practice’ over their careers.” (165) 


Many companies have tried to conduct lessons-learned exercises after the completion of major projects. (166)  “The Army has learned that these reviews must become a state of mind where everybody is continuously assessing themselves, their units, and their organizations and asking how they can improve.” (166)  This requires skilled facilitators and a willingness of key leaders to avoid dominating the discussions and to admit their own mistakes. 


Companies need to study the competition as well, compiling a precise record of how a rival conducts a particular project or initiative. 


Benchmarking creates mountains of data and it’s possible to get lost in the numbers and ignore crucial qualitative information.  Southwest Airlines’ success hinges on the intangibles.  These are the hardest thing for a competitor to imitate, but perhaps also the hardest to maintain.  (174) 


Try to learn from firms well beyond your industry.  Your sister organizations and competitors may all be missing a trend (think Polaroid) that will be critical for your future.


Take a hard look in the mirror after both success and failure.  Watch the film, searching for problems and mistakes, even after success.  Refine the organization’s critical learning and review processes.  Search for problems consistently and relentlessly. 


9. The Mindset of a Problem-Finder

The problem-finder cultivates an intellectual curiosity that asks questions, seeking to learn about both the familiar and the unfamiliar.  This mindset is never satisfied with its understanding of a topic, resists deferring to experts, and questions its own prior judgments and conclusions.  It overcomes the natural stubborn attachment to existing beliefs. This curiosity also embraces systemic thinking.  It recognizes that small errors frequently indicate broader systemic issues and that most complex failures arise from the convergence of many small errors.  It values a healthy paranoia.  And it sees every problem as an opportunity to learn and improve.