Archive for November, 2017

Is What You Think You Know Hurting Your Business?

Friday, November 3rd, 2017

Men at work

Knowledge is a good thing, right? Of course it is. Knowing what works and what doesn’t keeps us safe. It helps us advance in our chosen field and it helps us make good choices for our lives and our business.

But there is a difference between knowledge and what we think we know. In the context of business this difference can make or break our success. Innovation and problem solving require a lot of knowledge but they are hindered by convictions and assumptions about what we know, what is possible, or even what is there.

Over the years I have used many strategies to overcome my lack of formal education. The one that has worked the best is this offer: “I will work for your company for one week. For free if you like. If at the end of that week, I haven’t become indispensable, I’ll leave, no questions asked.” The reason this works is because of what people think they know.

I used this offer once at an early laptop computer innovator and manufacturer in Colorado. They were not hiring at the time but I was interested in what they were doing. At that time, their product was the smallest “portable” computer available. It was also a Macintosh clone. I had recently worked for another Macintosh innovator in Vermont using a similar strategy.

I showed up on Monday. They gave me a simple programming task, I was a little slow because it was in their computer’s BIOS. The BIOS is the software in the computer’s firmware that runs first when you start the computer, even before the operating system. I had never worked in firmware before so I had a large learning curve just to get my first attempt installed. I completed the task on time by studying after hours and using imagination to practice what I learned before going to work.

By Thursday I had completed all of the tasks that they had offered. It wasn’t the big splash of success that I had hoped for though, and the week was almost over. They must have been thinking the same thing because they asked me to look into a problem that had been vexing them for 6 months. Some data was being lost after the computer was put to sleep. They wanted me to find the problem by using a logic analyzer. A logic analyzer is a machine that connects directly onto the CPU or other chip on the computer. It allows you to watch what the individual pins of the chip are doing. They thought it was a hardware problem.

They gave me a computer that was exhibiting the problem, the logic analyzer, and the manual. They walked away. I spent all of Thursday learning how to use the tool. I practiced all night in my imagination using what I had learned.

On Friday morning, when I went in I was concerned that I would not be offered a job because I had not made myself indispensable yet and it was the last day. I hooked up the computer and reproduced the problem while watching the output from the logic analyzer for about an hour. The director of software development came by and asked me how I was doing.

I told him that the problem was not caused by the hardware. I told him that it was a bug in the software. I told him that the data was not being saved before being put to sleep so there was no way it would be there when it woke. The director said that was impossible. He said he looked at that before and knew that I was wrong. I asked him to give me the benefit of the doubt and to look again. He walked away. He came back thirty minutes later with the owner of the company. They offered me a job.

This is one example of how our beliefs about ourselves and what we know can hinder our success in business. There are many others. I have seen business owners who think they know what is happening in their company or how their workers feel, while the workers themselves have a completely different story. I have watched companies lose dominance in an industry and even fail completely because they “knew” they had the answers. They were unwilling to even look at what else was available or who else was acting in the industry.

Why does this happen?

Knowledge is additive. It is never complete. But we think it is. We think we just have to learn a skill or get some information about the next thing we are doing and we are done. We assume we know what is best because we looked into it once and now have the answer. These thoughts make us feel good and important. That is not a bad thing. But when these feelings stop us from asking questions or revisiting what we know, to see if it still fits, we are making a mistake.

It is a good thing to know stuff about the world and our own profession. But if we don’t know about ourselves we are still lost. What do we think about what we know? What are our beliefs about what is possible? What do we think we know about others? Can we look at our own work and lives with fresh eyes? Or are we lost in some fiction that will one day stop us from seeing ourselves at all?

The only way to maintain a clear view of what we are doing is to maintain a clear view of ourselves. It is a practice. It is called mindfulness. It is a continual reassessment of our assumptions, our beliefs, our choices, and our reactions. To know ourselves is the only way to truly know the world.

Kelly MacInnis has been working full time in Information Technology as a software engineer and a problem solver for over thirty years. He has done so with no formal education what so ever. For information on how that is possible see this link: