It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

Thanks to the example set by our media-groomed politicians, it seems that nobody is willing to admit when they don’t know the answer to something. Rather than reveal a gap in their knowledge, they prefer to fudge their way to a non-committal, irrelevant or even incorrect response, by trotting out a favourite policy slogan or party catchphrase. Wouldn’t it be refreshing (and more honest) if they just said “I don’t know”, and then figured out how to find the appropriate answer?

Image by: Alexander Henning Drachmann

Image by: Alexander Henning Drachmann

In previous posts, I have commented on my frustrations at poor customer service, and in particular, the inadequate customer service training given to front-line staff. My latest run-in with poor customer service training came at my local supermarket. Owing to an innocent misunderstanding at the checkout, I asked the checkout assistant to reverse the payment on my credit card payment and debit it instead from the cash balance on my store loyalty card.

“No, that’s not possible”, I was told. “It’s already gone through on your credit card. You’ll have to use the loyalty card next time.”

“Surely,” I replied, “it’s a very simple process to reverse the transaction, and process it again?”

My request was further denied as being “impossible”. Eventually, the checkout assistant admitted that she “didn’t know” how to do it, so she would need to ask her supervisor to do it. “Fine,” I replied, and suggested she could have said this in the first place.

Problem was, the supervisor had no idea either. “I’ll have to re-process your transaction by scanning and reversing each item individually, and then put them through again.” By this time, I was wondering why I chose to shop here, and seriously considering why I would ever do so again.

“There must be an easier way,” I suggested. “I can’t be the first customer to have had this issue.” After further hesitation and prevarication, the supervisor said she would have to ask her manager to show her how to do it, as she herself didn’t know the process.

Turns out, it took one transaction code to reverse the credit card payment, and then reprocess it on the loyalty card – and without having to re-scan my shopping.

I don’t blame the checkout assistant, as clearly she hadn’t been trained how to do it (although she should have admitted as much in the first place). I’m a little surprised that the supervisor didn’t know either (how did she get promoted?). But the real blame must lie with the manager (or his manager) for not making sure the staff working under him knew the process, or knew who could perform the transaction.

To me, leadership (in politics, in business and in the service industry) is about making sure people know how to do their job, that they have the right tools and information to perform their duties, and that they know what is expected of them in the role. In cases where they may not know the answer, then it’s better to admit “I don’t know, but I’ll find the answer”, rather than fumbling the issue.

Next week: Updates on Apple Health, AusPost, eTaskr and Slow School of Business

Help! I need to get some perspective….

At a recent professional networking event, I found myself in conversation with a business owner and tech entrepreneur. As I was describing my work, he suddenly asked, “Do you mentor your clients, because my business partner and I could use some help?”

perspective-35266_640I was somewhat surprised by the question, because although I see my role primarily as a business consultant and coach, it hadn’t occurred to me that what I did included mentoring, even though it’s probably in the mix of services and support I offer. And from experience, working with business partners can sometimes be likened to relationship counselling….

To be clear, though, I see that there are distinct differences between consulting, coaching, mentoring and counselling – even though the boundaries may at times be blurred.*

The one thing I believe they have in common is that they each bring external perspective, especially when there may be a need for fresh thinking, such as a new take on current processes, or simply a circuit breaker when businesses get in a rut or hit a road block.

Here’s what I regard as the essential and unique qualities of each of these roles:


At its simplest, consulting can be described as initiating the dialogue between an organization and itself. When it concerns a review of ongoing operations, or a strategic initiative, most organisations call in consultants because they want an outsider’s view – not because they don’t know what they are doing, or can’t think for themselves.

As external consultants, we have the privilege to be invited into a client’s organisation; and our obligation to the client is to tell them what we really think, not what we think they want to hear. Our purpose is to capture the relevant information and “play it back” to the client to make sure we have understood what we have heard, whilst adding our honest interpretation of the data, along with some informed recommendations for action (which, of course, the client is free to disregard).

Our key contribution is to highlight inconsistencies or ambiguity in the data, to ensure that the client has considered all possible options, and to point out relevant external factors that the client may not be aware of. Above all, as a consultant I try to bring insights as well as perspective – what one person I have worked with described as “pure gold”.


The most effective coaches are those who can help clients identify specific goals, the steps required to achieve them, and then support them through the process. While business coaches can work with groups or teams, they are more suited to one-on-one relationships, to ensure they are keeping the client accountable for their own progress.

Many business coaches see their primary role as helping the client develop a strategic plan, and then making sure they stick to it, sometimes by telling them what to do. Whereas executive coaches may hone in on a particular aspect of an individual’s performance, to sharpen their skills and to make them more effective in their role; or in the case of a career coach, help them achieve a career change.

In some cases, a coach is similar to an instructor, and aims to help the client improve a skill or competency in pursuit of better outcomes and results. As a coach, I know the best work I do is when I get feedback like, “You’ve helped us to do in three weeks what it would have taken us three months!”


Mentoring is mainly about helping the client to become the person they aspire to be. More so than coaching, mentoring is most effective in a one-on-one relationship, and unlike coaching may not be linked to specific or time-based goals. A mentor may bring deep domain knowledge and experience, but doesn’t instruct the client or tell them what to do. Instead, a mentor may ask, “So, what are you going to do about it?” when the client raises an issue or a problem.

While a coach may focus on “doing”, a mentor may be seen as helping to develop certain behaviours or attitudes. Although the mentor is also there to provide some external perspective, in some ways their role is to hold up a mirror so that the client can reflect on what they (and others) can see.

In some situations, a mentor can provide a role model, so long as this is not about following someone we admire, and more about self leadership. More importantly, a mentor can act as an advocate, which is significant for entrepreneurs, business owners, CEO’s and senior executives, for whom it can be “lonely at the top”.

The best mentoring probably happens when the “process” is invisible – and the dialogue happens in the moment. I know from experience that my role as a mentor has had most impact when I hear my words or ideas being expressed by others – not as plagiarism, flattery, imitation or even sycophancy, but because the mentee has taken on board what I have said, and made it their own.


Counselling could be defined as the dialogue around change and transformation, although it is different to mentoring in that it can address cognitive perspectives, as well as behavioral issues.

We are familiar with the role of change managers, but without engaging the organisation on the need for change, their work can become process-driven (and a thankless task). It’s much better to foster an open dialogue about the broader context and opportunity for change, which can open up new possibilities for transformation. Ideally, this approach can take some of the fear out of the change program, as well as creating a sustainable change model.

I have known some managers to use counselling techniques to resolve operational issues within their teams, because it can be an effective way to get to the bottom of a problem without apportioning blame and without being judgemental.

Counselling can cross the line into “giving advice”, which is not always helpful if clients are not receptive, or if it means clients don’t learn to think or decide for themselves. I once trained and worked as a counsellor in helping people resolve personal, employment, financial and legal problems. The key requirements of the role were helping the client to see that there may be a number of different solutions (without telling them which one to choose), and to uncover the underlying issues (rather than dealing only with the presenting problem).

The best counselling provides clients with a sense of empowerment, backed by a clear understanding of their responsibilities, and an appreciation for the consequences of choosing one course of action over another.

Putting it all together

As mentioned earlier, despite their differences, the roles of consultant, coach, mentor and counsellor can overlap – and there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as practitioners and their clients understand when and how the positions may alternate between one state and the next. Ultimately, it will depend on both the circumstances of the situation, and what is appropriate to the clients’ needs.



* There is a particular tendency to use the terms “coach” and “mentor” interchangeably, even though they are quite separate. For a good summary of the differences, see this recent article.

“Why? Because we’ve always done it this way…”

A couple of blogs ago, one of my regular correspondents kindly laid down a challenge. He suggested that part of the answer to the problem I was writing about (i.e., how to manage data overload) could be found within Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why”.

Why?I’m quite familiar with Sinek’s investigation of “Why?”, but I wasn’t sure it was applicable in the context of my topic. Don’t get me wrong – the “Golden Circle” is a great tool for getting leadership teams to explore and articulate their purpose, and it can help individual business owners to re-connect with the reasons they do what they do.

It can even facilitate new product and service development.

But, I believe it’s harder to apply at an operational or processing level, where the sorts of decisions I was referring to in my blog are typically being made: what tools to use, what systems to adopt, what software to deploy etc.

There are several reasons why organisations do things the way they do them. When undertaking a business process review, I frequently ask the question, “Why are you doing this?”

Here are some typical responses I’ve received (and my conclusions in parentheses):

  • “Because we have to” (compliance)
  • “Because we’ve been told to” (command and control)
  • “Because we’ve always done it like this” (inertia)
  • “Because everyone else is doing it” (cheap/easy/popular)
  • “Because our consultants recommended it” (cop-out)

In one experience, I had to implement a process change within a publishing team, comprising experts (writers) and technicians (editors). The problem was, that even though the content was published on-line, most of the production processes were done on hard copy, before the final versions were uploaded via a content management system. The inefficiencies in the process were compounded by a near-adversarial relationship between writers and editors, at times bordering on a war of attrition.

When I asked the team why they worked this way, their responses were mainly along the lines of “command and control” and “inertia”. Behaviours were reinforced by some self-imposed demarcation.

The writers felt it was their role as experts to demonstrate everything they knew about the topic (without necessarily saying what they actually thought); while the editors felt they were required to work within a rigid house style (to the point of pedantry), maintain writing quality (at the expense of timeliness), and to maintain content structure and format (over context and insight).

  • Both sides felt they were meeting the organisation’s purpose: to deliver quality information to their customers to help them make informed decisions.
  • Both believed they were following clear operational guidelines, such as production, technical, and compliance.
  • Both were passionate about what they did, and took great pride in their work.

Unfortunately, the procedures which they had each been told to follow were inefficient, at times contradictory, and increasingly out of step with what customers actually wanted.

Based on market feedback clients told us they:

  • favoured timeliness over 100% perfection;
  • preferred insights over data dumps; and
  • really wanted “little and often” in terms of content updates

Thankfully, the voice of the customer prevailed, and the introduction of more timely content management processes resulted in frequent updating (via regular bulletins) backed by the “traditional” in-depth analysis.

When starting a change management project, conducting a process review, or undertaking a root-cause analysis, if asking “Why?” doesn’t get you very far in getting to the bottom of a problem, I find that it can help to pose another question: “What would your customers think about this?” For example, if customers knew how many times a piece of data was handed back and forth before their order/request/enquiry was processed, what impression might that give about an organisation?

For most companies, their sense of purpose is driven by a strong or underlying desire to serve their customers better – it’s as simple as that.

Next week: The 3L’s that kill #data projects

How Can I Help?

My purpose in launching this blog was to develop a personal brand, to engage with an audience, and to provide a platform for my ideas and interests, especially in respect to navigating the “information age”.

At the risk of self-aggrandizement, I’d like to think that this blog is helpful, informative and even entertaining. After two years of blogging, I have a sizeable and regular audience, my content gets shared and commented on by numerous readers, and key articles continue to be read many months after publication. (Two of the most popular articles in 2014 were actually published in early 2013.)

Several of my core followers have mentioned why they enjoy my blog, and these are some of their reasons:

  1. The content is original and well written
  2. The articles make them think about things in new ways
  3. I write about novel ideas
  4. My thinking reveals hitherto hidden or less obvious connections
  5. I’m never afraid to state my opinion

Which all suggest to me that they derive value from my analysis and conclusions.

So, my offer of help is this: If you would like access to this creative process, either in support of a specific business opportunity, or to address a strategic issue you face, or simply to help with your own content development, please get in touch via this blog or direct by e-mail. In return, I will provide you with an initial assessment of the issues as I see them, and an outline solution, at no obligation. It’s simply my way of saying “thank you” to everyone who has made an effort to engage with Content in Context.