We don’t know what we are doing; Let’s go

A recent workshop exploring the notion of not knowing, the opportunities it presents and how to develop the capacity to remain at the stressed edges of what is tolerable.

I hope you enjoy it.

If you would like Neil to work with your team or organisation please contact us using the form below.


Look back at the year you had before you look forward to the next.

The year you thought you were going to have

The year you thought you were going to have

The internet will be full of articles looking ahead to a new year, what changes will take place and what will be BIG?  Far fewer dare to look backwards at the previous year’s forecasts and goals, let alone ask difficult questions such as Continue reading

“What changes lie ahead in 2014?” and other futile questions

Earlier this week we spoke at the Learning and Performance Institute’s Fellows event.  Their topic was Looking Ahead to 2014 which struck a chord with us.

The “Year ahead” preview is a common and natural enough feature in many industries.

It assumes, though, that we can predict with some accuracy what lies in store.  As we shall see below it also assumes that we hear and respond to the question accurately as well – not necessarily a safe assumption.

Such an exercise has only limited utility.  We cannot predict everything and many of the things we do predict never come to pass.  If we commit to certain perception of what lies in store we may blind ourselves to other possibilities.

This is not to say that such exercises are entirely redundant but we need to be able to hold prognoses lightly to avoid become enthralled and beholden to, and blinded by them.  We were also interested about what we anticipated would be big in 2013 which never was.

Why might we have assumed wrongly?

And the changes we thought we had predicted 12 months ago, just how well have we implemented them if they came about at all?

What got in the way of progress?

Over the coming weeks we will drill down into several reasons why what we thought we anticipated does not come to pass.  Those reasons, if you want a quick overview, can be found on slides 4,5, 8 and 9 on the deck which can be viewed here

To kick us off though, here is a key reason why future gazing becomes warped.

Very often when we are asked

“What changes will happen in 2014?” – or similar, we often hear and are inclined to answer a very different question.  We tend to answer this one;

“What do you want the changes to be in 2014?”


The League of Not Knowing is an emergent movement exploring ambiguity and the cult of fake certainty.  It tells us that it is alright to not know and explores how individuals, leaders and organisations can remain flexible, strategic and effective in the face of uncertainty.

Neil Denny can be contacted on neildenny@allLD.com for speaking engagements and bookings.

Don’t know? Go ahead and ask. They don’t know either.

As I write this I am about to deliver a workshop on Not Knowing at the quite remarkable Agile Cambridge conference.
I got here this morning and sat in on another workshop. That was not easy for me given that I am not an agile developer, scrum-master or project owner, but I have some familiarity with the system and vernacular.
The session turned into a practical exercise where we had to think about which people in an organisation – defined by job title/role – would be responsible for which decisions.  Mercifully, with a degree of patience and working out, I was able to find my way around this chart except for one job title.
This one stumped me.

What could that mean? I could not work it out but I did not want to ask. Now this was interesting. Why not, I asked myself…

  • For fear of looking stupid
  • For fear of wasting someone else’s time
  • For fear of being marginalised within the group
  • In case it was something really obvious
  • An anesthetizing self delusion that `It probably doesn’t matter anyway’ therefore do nothing
  • In case it had already been explained and I had just missed it
  • In case I had no place knowing – “That, oh, that’s not for you to know”

In my reflective mode, watching myself and how I was behaving in Not Knowing I realised that it was time to confront myself.  In a few hours time I would be speaking on not knowing and so I had to challenge and confess my own ignorance.

I turned to the man next to me and asked “Can you help me out with this one?  What does SEPG mean?”

He looked up from the task he was busily involved with and said “I don’t know either.” before going back to the exercise.

Think. Have you ever sat silent in a state of not knowing and what was your reason for doing so?

Fake Certainty

Uncertainty causes discomfort.
Not knowing what is happening or what will happen next means that we are forced to be alert, ready to respond to whatever unanticipated event might happen next.
It is a tiring state to be in.
We need our wits about us, we experience heightened levels of perception and we are often required to respond in ways that are we may not yet be familiar with.
Organisations and individuals will often seek to numb the discomfort and strain of uncertainty with over confidence in a selected position, fact or finding. When this happens then we introduce several new risks into our leadership, decision making and behaviour.

  1. Over-assertion
  2. Hot air balloon peril
  3. Tunnel vision

All of the above follow once we have grasped a possible solution to a problem or fixated upon one interpretation of what might be happening before us.

Over-assertion sees us arguing too loudly and assertively in favour of our selected response.  This, in turn, leads to division, conflict and increasingly committed positions that are very difficult to climb down from, illustrated by…

The League of Not Knowing is a blog by Neil Denny, helping leaders and managers get comfortable with uncertainty and to enable them to continue to be effective even when they do not know the answers

Being overly certain in a position can lead you to overcommit – with awful consequences!

The hot air balloon peril; a result of  over-commitment, where we resolve to pursue a particular route and, having made that choice, we then find it is becomes increasingly impossible to deviate from it.  The metaphor of the hot air balloon peril is that of a member of the ground crew holding onto a tether rope for a slowly inflating hot air balloon. As the unmanned balloon inflates prematurely it starts to lift from the ground, with the ground crew member holding on believing that if only he or she holds on tight and digs their heels in that they can avert this premature launch.  The balloon continues to lift and is 15 feet above the ground. The groundsperson is no longer digging their heels in; they are barely touching the ground with their tiptoes and then *snink* their toes, too, have left the ground.

Suddenly the groundsperson finds that they are 5, 10, 25 feet above the ground quickly swirling and disappearing beneath them. The balloon carries on inexorably upwards and the groundsperson faces an awful choice;

  • Give up on their plan and belief that by them holding onto the rope that they can avert the launch and drop to the ground below; or
  • Keep holding on in an increasingly desperate hope that their original outcome will come about and that the balloon will slowly start to descend and come to rest once more.

Tunnel vision is that wonderful trick of biases that blinds us to anything other than our selected response or interpretation.  It is startling just how blind we can become.  It is often painful and sometimes humiliating to later become aware of the alternative interpretations.

Where have you seen fake certainty and its repercussions in your organisations, your own decisions or in the news recently?  How was it seen and what was the result… and the cost?


The league of not knowing rides again

Neil Denny’s The Delicious Discomfort of Not Knowing talk has been selected for the leading learning and development conference LearningLive with the Learning and Performance Institute.

We will be following up on that presentation with a series of blog articles exploring how organisations resist uncertainty and shut down exploration and the potential for discovery and growth. A key part of those articles will be an Uncertainty Audit, enabling you to systematically analyse where your organisation shuts down, how and some things that you can do about it.

Keep tuned.

If you would like Neil Denny to deliver The Delicious Discomfort of Not Knowing at your event, or deliver additional training in house on enabling curiosity, discovery and being able to tolerate uncertainty and change then contact him on neildenny@allLD.co.uk