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Entrepreneur and CEO trap: What You Don’t Know YOU Don’t Know

I had conversation last week with a client who considering options to solve a pressing management issue. He had spent a lot of time researching and outlined a clear SWOT analysis of the issue. After carefully considering his 2 choices, he decided on his 2nd option.

I asked, "what about option 3 – it's a blend of the 2". He looked at me and thought for a moment and said, "But I only have 2 option." "Really?" I asked. "Option 3 can solve our issue without the risks you outlined in the 2nd option." His realization forced him to reconsider the entire issue and the next day (you guessed it) he went with option 3. This was a clear example of the biggest danger: He didn't know WHAT he didn't know.

I see this often working with management teams and entrepreneurs – they think they have all the options to make a decision. Many times the true danger is what you don't know you don't know  A good illustration of this is a post I read today by NY entrepreneur Ben Pieratt, CEO of Svpply, that bravely admitted, "I have no idea what I'm doing." (See his full post here). He said "I enjoy naming products and I think I have a talent for it. I have an understanding of design that extends well past the aesthetic. …But I have zero experience or expertise in building a company"

He recognized that his biggest danger was he didn't have the depth of experience beyond his comfort zone to make the best decisions for the company. Simply, he didn't know he DIDN'T know. Many of us (myself included) have these challenges. I believe a great antidote to the this "idontknow-itis" is expanding your management bench with experienced leaders who will question your assumptions, ask you questions and explore "what-if" scenarios. Clearly, Ben knows enough to build a company that's growing, has attracted outside investors and talent yet there are clearly things he has no experience solving.

Another example is a client who assumed he needed to keep spending $100,000 each month on advertising. I challenged his belief that if he stopped advertising, sales would tank. We tried 1 month of reducing spending just 90% below the previous month's ad budget. The results were amazing – sales declined just 10%.  The reworked assumptions saved this client over $1 million in ads that went straight to the bottom line.

The key issue in both these cases is humility. Having the guts and confidence to ask yourself and others for input to guide you the right decision is the hallmark of a leader who places results ahead of ego and will learn by overcoming these lurking unknown unknowns. My advice, ask yourself "what is it I don't know I don't know". The answer can help you be much more successful.

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