September 2022

How good are you at not knowing? 

It may sound contradictory that not-knowing is a competence, but according to Martin Vesterby, it’s actually the case. Especially if you want to innovate, you must have the courage to put yourself in a position where you don’t know the answer. For many of us this requires practice.

In his capacity as a partner at Health Tech Hub Copenhagen, Martin Vesterby works with innovation in the healthcare system. Here, he combines his comprehensive medical knowledge with competences within communication, networking, collaboration and creativity, thus making him a classic T-shaped person: Someone who is deeply rooted in his professional standards (the vertical line of the T) and who is, at the same time, meeting the world with ”open arms” (the horizontal line of the T).

We need not know everything, says Martin Vesterby, who believes that we should practice bringing ourselves into situations in which we have to say ”I don’t know.” We asked him to elaborate on this.


Why is not knowing the answer an advantage?

”The scope of possible solutions increases when we are not looking for answers straight away, but rather explore possibilities. This is where we get creative, and it’s the prerequisite for creating new, innovative solutions. But it’s also a prerequisite that we feel secure in being ignorant, daring to say, 'I don’t know – let's investigate'. And to many this is difficult; especially for well-educated people.”   

Why is being ignorant so difficult?

”It’s inherent in our culture and educational system that we should always know the answer. There’s seldom room for doubt, which restricts our capacity for thinking along new lines, drawing on knowledge from, for instance, other professional areas.”

How do you put ’not knowing’ into practice?

”You’ll be attentive to other people. And you will listen. You will be wondering and asking questions. You’ll combine your own professional competence with a curiosity as to what others can contribute. Teamwork, communication, networking, and creativity are important competences, providing the 'arms' of the T-shaped profile that will invite the contribution of other professional perspectives.”

Why is this particularly relevant in life sciences?

We need a novel approachto innovation, internally in businesses as well as in relation to the urgentsocietal challenges in healthcare. If we wish to improve the healthcare system and create better solutions for patients, we mustdare to think along new lines. The tolerancefor errors istypically low inthe lifesciences, andthereforethe need for training ‘not-knowing’ is even moreimportant in this area. It takes acertain amount ofwillingness for risk-taking to createthe necessary improvements.”

Martin Vesterby Quote T-profile

In what contexts should we not challenge and ask questions?

”A situation requiring urgent attention is not an appropriate setting for challenging routines, e.g. in an ER. When a positive outcome for a patient is at stake, we should obviously comply with procedures. But when there is no urgency: ask questions, express your thoughts so we can explore them together and create improvements.”

How does one build up the courage to say ”I don’t know” a bit more often?

”We need to train our ’growth mindset’ and keep going. To dare push forward without knowing exactly where you’ll end up. By challenging yourself and frequently learning new things, you’ll develop the kind of humility that comes from being a novice. There are many courses in innovation, creativity, communication, etc., but tools are not the most decisive ingredient; it is about human relations, the way you meet other people, and having the guts to say 'I don’t know – let's investigate'."

So, should we all become T profiles?

”No – and yes. The answer is not unequivocal. Highly specialised experts will still be in demand, and there must be room for different profiles in the workplace. But even if you know all there is to know within a given area, you must be able to curb your inner specialist. Depending on the context, you must be able to assess how best to put your professional standards into play. This will require humility and that you work on your ability to communicate and collaborate – and over time this will strengthen your T-shape skills.”

At which point in my career should I work on expanding my T competences?

”As early as possible – but it’s never too late. In reality, it is about a mindset in which we don’t focus exclusively on learning facts and skills, but to a higher degree learn HOW we can learn.”

This article is based on Martin Vesterby's presentation, ”Think in T profiles if you wish to advance”, given at the Life Science Meetup on 17 August 2022 in the Life Science House.

Learn more about T profiles and competence requirements in life sciences in these articles:

The Battle of the Scarce Resource: the Employees - Read more

If You Want to Make Your Mark in the World, You Must Meet Other People (interview with Diana Arsovic Nielsen, CEO, Danish Life Science Cluster) - Read more

At Atrium, you can expand your existing professional knowledge and skills – and learn about co-creation with life science professional from other areas. Atrium is also the place to  bolster your network and discuss with others who, like yourself, work in the life sciences.