Tue, Jun

Know what you don’t know

“I do not think that I know what I do not know.” Socrates said that. The great Greek philosopher does not normally feature in any of those greatest management gurus of alltime lists, but maybe he should.

I also like his observation, during the trial that ended in his death: “I don’t know whether you have been convinced by my accusers. I myself was almost carried away by them, their arguments were so persuasive and yet hardly a word of what they said was true.” I’ve felt that exact same thing many a time when listening to suppliers and, by a second-hand route, hearing what rivals have said about Mole Graphics and about their own capabilities.

The most egregious example of the latter is probably the sales director of a print services provider who almost won a major pan-European job by insisting that his company owned proprietary software which automatically translated text from one language to another. That might - in the age of Google Translate - be plausible today but in 1987 the claim was downright outlandish. Luckily, at the last minute, the client asked to test this amazing capability and, after a plethora of excuses from our competitor, gave us the job.

I don’t want you to think I spend all my down time reading Socrates. I picked up the book - Bettany Hughes’ ‘The Hemlock Cup’ - at a train station secondhand bookstore before a long journey and was soon engrossed. (Full disclosure: the train WiFi was so erratic I had nothing else to entertain myself with, apart from the latest finance department spreadsheets.)

One of Socrates’ accusers blamed him for misleading his son - encouraging him to ‘think’ rather than automatically accept his lot as the heir to the family business. As the patriarch - and I use the word satirically - of Mole Graphics, I understand why this would be irritating. On the other hand, I have seen too many demotivated son-and-heirs running print companies out of a sense of familial obligation. In such cases, a pre-emptive chat from Socrates might have spared the son anguish and helped the business.

And if everybody agreed not to pretend to know stuff they didn’t know, business life would be so much more productive. So I raise my glass to Socrates - trusting that there is no hemlock in it!

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