Knowing What You Need To Know

Knowing what you need to know - Photo by Laurin Steffens on Unsplash

Knowing the right answer has been important over my career. When I say right answer, what I’m really talking about is an answer to leads to a positive outcome. I’ve learned there are many paths to a good outcome. If knowing the right answer is key, how can you lead in an area you know little about?

I am facing this situation currently as my wife and I have begun the process of designing and building a new home. Neither of us has built a house before and the breadth of required knowledge is very wide, across many disciplines. We are having to make important decisions on a weekly basis and getting them wrong will be costly.

This situation reminds me of some wisdom from one of my coaches, Bob Dunham at the Institute of Generative Leadership. Bob said most people need to know before they can act. He advises the opposite, we have to act in order to know. This is the approach I’ve been taking and here are some practices I’ve tried out with varying levels of success.


These days there seems to be an almost limitless supply of information. Be that online in written or video form, and in books. I recently had a chance to try out the ChatGPT AI tool. It is an extremely powerful research tool, returning results in an easy to read article format. The hard thing with self-study is knowing whether what you are reading is a fair and accurate picture. I tend to use this to get a reasonable understanding of the topic.

Ask a friend

This is tricky because most people want to be helpful, whether they know something or not. If they don’t, it’s not going to be helpful and perhaps worse. Gently ask about the person’s experience, how did they learn, and what don’t they know. I am fortunate to have a friend who has built four houses and he has a wealth of knowledge to fall back on. At the same time, he recognizes what he doesn’t know.

Hire a consultant

When the topic is complicated and the stakes are high, it can be worthwhile to hire a consultant. Resist the temptation to do this straight away. It is important you have a basic understanding to know roughly what to ask for. You also need to do your homework to find out who is credible. Do they have references or examples of their work? If someone you trust refers you, you may have what you need.

Talk to an expert

It is surprising how much information is available free of charge from experts. People love to talk about what they know, so long as you have a good basic knowledge. The one exception is when you know nothing and you rely on an expert to tell you everything. This is lazy. Don’t do it, do your homework instead. I was researching HVAC solutions and I had several specific questions about efficiency measures. The HVAC expert was delighted to talk about this and share what they knew. They also didn’t charge me, it was part of the customer engagement process. It never hurts to reach out to someone and ask if they are willing to help. You’ll get a yes more often than no.

My biggest learning is none of these alone will be enough. Use each of them and if you start with the first two, you will learn enough to know who to consult in the second two. The alternative is to become paralyzed with inaction. You may never know the best answer, but we can always move forward learning as we go.