Liz Wiseman speaks on escaping the knowledge trap



Natalie Bothwell
Liz Wiseman speaks about the dangers of knowledge at the campus forum, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. She related her forum address to her own personal experiences. (Natalie Bothwell)

Liz Wiseman, founder and president of The Wiseman Group, spoke at the Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016 campus forum about the advantages of not knowing.

Wiseman admitted her fear of speaking about the dangers of knowledge at BYU where the values knowledge and intelligence are held so high.

She discussed the ways leaders and professionals let intelligence get in the way of success. Some leaders are “diminishers,” meaning they limit other’s possibilities, according to Wiseman.

“They are smart, but they tend to shut down the smarts of others,” said Wiseman.

She told of a senior executive she worked with at Oracle. With a green pen, he reviewed everyone’s documents, leaving a scattering of T’s. On the back page, a legend that explained T meant terrible.

Years later Wiseman visited with this executive at an Oracle alumni event. He remembered being harder on people than necessary rather than remembering his own success. Wiseman used this story to emphasize that leaders rarely recognize at the time the potential they’re overlooking and the damage they’re causing.

Sometimes leaders are “accidental diminishers,” Wiseman said. They might focus on themselves and might try helping to the point of making others helpless. They also might look only at the possibilities and ignore the problems and might think their energy is infectious when it’s not.

“These leaders are suffocating,” Wiseman said. “They expand like a gas tank and take up all the available space, leaving no room for others.”

She went on to talk about her first “grown-up” job, building and leading Oracle University. Her only qualification was recently attending a university, she joked. Wiseman defended her inexperience when a her boss told a client Wiseman was unqualified but bright.

“Who wants a job they are qualified for? There would be nothing to learn,” Wiseman said.

Over time Wiseman felt qualified and even “legit” at Oracle, so she left. She wanted a challenge, something she didn’t yet know how to do, so she started The Wiseman Group to research and teach leadership.

She found in a survey that people find the most satisfaction in their work when they are challenged.

“It’s kind of our happy place because we are built for challenge,” Wiseman said.

Natalie Bothwell
Liz Wiseman and the dean of the Marriott School stretch a rubber band to its maximum tension point. Wiseman related the rubber band to professional life tension.  (Natalie Bothwell)

Wiseman asked the dean of the Marriott School, Lee Perry, to assist her in a demonstration of challenge. He took one end of a rubber band, and she took the other. After stretching the band as far as they could, she asked the audience what her options were. She could let go, or she could move closer.

She explained that the need to relieve tension in professional life is the same as the need to relieve tension in the rubber band. Moving closer is the same as solving the challenging problem.

Wiseman called this state of tension the “rookie zone.” In this zone, people ask better questions, seek feedback and bring in additional expertise.

She also said that despite common belief rookies aren’t risk-takers. They’re actually extremely cautious, but they’re fast and resourceful.

“We operate when we’re on a frontier in scrappy ways,” Wiseman said. “We improvise. We’re lean. We’re agile. Because when we lack resources, this is when we get really resourceful.”

Wiseman offered four ways to “escape the knowledge trap” and enter the “rookie zone.”

First, she suggested asking questions. She told how she was a bossy mom when her kids were six-, four- and two-years-old. She reenacted the many commands she would rattle off every night trying to get her kids to bed. Taking the advice of a friend, she stopped directing and started asking.

She asked questions, such as, “What time is it?” and “What’s next?” It worked. The children went readily to bed.

Second, Wiseman said it’s important to “admit what you don’t know.” New hires are hired not for their present knowledge but for their ability to learn, she said.

She also suggested throwing away notes, though she clarified students should not throw away their notes during the semester. Her point was that fresh-thinking is needed.

Wiseman also said it’s important to “see the genius in others.” She told of her son who exceeds the charts of adventurousness. She joked that Red Bull could be his corporate sponsor. He once built a “man fort” on the family’s roof, and it went undiscovered for a couple months. Another time he stitched up a gash on his leg all by himself.

She said it’s easy to get upset at such innovation, but she tries to see his original genius.

“I used to see a dangerous and destructive kid who might kill himself and the rest of us with him,” Wiseman said. “I would come to see a creator, a brilliant innovator, a problem-solver.”




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