When You Don’t Know The Answer Write Down The Question
My second “real job” was doing pre and post sales support at a software startup. I had been hired at the same time as an older and more experienced engineer and after about two weeks on the job he took me aside and advised, “buy a notebook and write down any commitments you make and any questions you promise to get answers for.” He was about eight years older so I figured his memory had started to go. Also, he was not my boss. I ignored him.
Within about six weeks I had missed a few deliveries on promised items or answers and it was clear that I had mis-assessed. So I started to carry a lab notebook and write down summaries of every conversation. I included details to jog my memory like date, time, location, attendees and highlighted any commitments I made or answers that I promised.
I learned that the act of writing down a commitment in front of the customer and then replaying it for confirmation underscored that I was actually listening. At the end of the meeting I would summarize all of my commitments (or “action items”) and any questions I needed to research for a final check.
Later I learned a technique called “the parking lot” where you write down on a flip chart or white board any questions you that either want to defer to later in conversation or you need to research. I then discovered that once I started to hold myself accountable in a public way in a meeting I could also include commitments that others had made or questions that they had promised to research in my closing summary and now we were all jointly accountable.
There is a strong temptation to avoid saying “I don’t know” and to guess at an answer or to provide a partial answer. For complex technical questions, answers that you may score as “mostly correct” tend to be rated as “you wasted my time with a wrong answer” by the customer.
In particular in a pre-sales situation saying “I don’t know, let me get back to you this afternoon (or tomorrow or next week depending upon urgency and complexity)” makes your other answers more credible because you have shown that you are willing to admit when you don’t know.
In my next job I was surprised when my boss’ boss would say, “I don’t know” clearly and frequently and I came to appreciate that “I don’t know” is actually an answer that is a hallmark of expertise. Experts know where their knowledge ends and are willing to label speculation as speculation so as not to intentionally mislead.
Here are some other refinements that I now use in remote meetings:
- In a Skype session I take notes of what the other person is saying in the text chat. This demonstrates that I am actually listening and allows them to correct something I have gotten wrong or to add a key point that I didn’t include in my notes. When the session is done I have already documented it and had it reviewed by the other attendees so I can mail out the transcript if I am pressed for time, or take 10-30 minutes refine and summarize in addition to providing my raw notes.
- The option for shared note taking by contributing to the chat also encourages the other participants to add their own notes. If many people are on the call the text chat can also allow one or more chat-based conversations to proceed in parallel.
- You can also run a separate chat window just for your team so that you have a back channel to enable better coordination. Be careful you are typing public notes in the public chat and private notes in the private chat. Typing a public note in the private chat has an effect similar to waiting for an answer after you commented when your mike is mute. Typing a private note in the public window can be much more problematic – don’t write anything you would not want disclosed accidentally.
- Shared note taking works if you want to use Google Docs or Primary Pad or another shared edit platform that allows for realtime update by multiple people.
- In a webinar or screen sharing session open a Notepad or Word Doc or text file and type your “parking lot” notes into it as you are walking through a presentation or demo. As you go back you can turn them into strikethrough text or put an [x] in the front of each item as you complete it. You are left with a set of action items you can then confirm need to be address–and by when–for all parties as appropriate.
Related blog posts
- Are You Using a Realtime Shared Docuement Editing Tools? Let’s Compare Notes
- The Benefits of Collaborative Writing, Interviewing, and Improvisation
- Debugging Teams/Meetings: Start With Goals & Roles
- Social Software Speeds Team Decision Making
- Three Features for a webinar or conference call
- How Do Blogs and Wikis Help Me Collaborate With My Customers?
- Presales Anxiety: Not Knowing All of the Answers by Peter Cohan
- Updated Conference Call Meeting Tips by Nancy White
- Using the Parking Lot by Rick Brenner
- Meeting Tools: Using the Issue Bin by Kevin Eikenberry
- Conference call practices to generate knowledge and record learning by John D. Smith and Shawn Callahan
- Combining Conference Call With a Wiki by Shawn Callahan
- A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy by Clay Shirky
(in particular in Part Two: Why Now starting at ” I’ll start a conference call.”)
- Project Management for Work that Matters by Seth Godin