There is one simple fact that, while often hard to accept, is true of every single person who ever lived: we are all ignorant. For everything we think we know, there are almost infinite aspects of understanding that are and will always be beyond us. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The key is to realise what form your ignorance takes and take action to try and steer it in the right direction.
// Blissful Ignorance
Blissful ignorance is an easy trap to fall into: everything seems to be going great, until it isn’t and you realise that your project is at risk of missing the deadline or even of total failure. Every effort should be made to avoid becoming complacent and failing to recognise faults and their potential mitigation within your organisation.
// Willful Ignorance
A far greater crime than blissful ignorance is to notice the warning signs, the cracks and creaks of a failing system, and to turn a blind eye to them, or declare that there is little that can be done. Something can always be done and if it isn’t, the trouble is just stored up for the future.
// Lucid Ignorance
If blissful and willful ignorance are the two negative aspects of ignorance, the positive counterpoint is lucid ignorance. While at first, lucid ignorance (a term I first came across in Jim McCarthy’s 21 Rules of Thumb) seems an unusual concept, its symptoms are very commonly understood: a daunting feeling at a great challenge or the realisation that you are out of your depth.
The natural reaction to such trepidation is often to try and suppress it. However, in the first of his rules Jim asserts the importance of embracing lucid ignorance and not accepting a group belief in pseudo-order or magical conversions of ignorance into knowledge. To question and demand acknowledgement of exactly where the risks – the lack of prior experience, lack of resources and lack of understanding – are in the project and to work as a team to get from the state of unknowing to a well understood vision, goals and structure.
‘It is essential not to profess to know, or seem to know, or accept that someone else knows, that which is unknown.’
– Jim McCarthy, 21 Rules of Thumb for Shipping Great Software on Time
As such it is important never to accept shaky justification or perceived wisdom as reason enough for project decisions. If no-one can justify why you’re doing something then that should be a major warning sign that it might be the wrong thing to do. If you are doing something purely because someone else does it then you may be missing the whole point, or just driving your product into a crowded marketplace, against established competitors, while missing the opportunity to find your own unique selling point.
// Mitigations for Ignorance
So what can be done to try and improve the amount of lucid ignorance within a team?
- Don’t delay or defer the difficult aspects of your design. Attempt to establish within well understood parameters exactly what is and isn’t possible – both theoretically and from a practical standpoint.
- Don’t assume something you are told to be true. It may be that a concept that appears easy is unfeasible, while another that seems impossible, at first, only requires a little lateral thinking. This is particularly important if it involves the collaboration of multiple parties, check with all of them that they concur.
- Establish good review procedures, welcome the input of even the most junior members of your team and frequently re-examine your group assumptions to ensure they still hold.
- Don’t skimp on project maintenance or ignore warnings as ‘minor’. While working on the next big feature can seem more appealing than fixing existing features, it is easy for major issues, that cause projects to run the risk of failure or damage relationships with clients, to be obscured or overlooked.
One thought on “OnIgnorance”
Margaret Heffernan gives a great talk on the dangers of willful blindness. She tells the story of Gayla Benefield from Libby, Montana, who after discovering her hometown had a mortality rate 80 times higher than anywhere else in the US, found that people didn’t want to know about the asbestos poisoning from their local mine.
When academics have done studies of corporations and organisations, asking, “are there issues at work that people are afraid to raise?” Typically 85% of respondents across the US and Europe respond, “Yes”.
You can read more about Libby, Montana here: