Best guess is a good guess

There is one thing that I often hear, when I do Net-Map interviews: People admit that they are not quite sure about the influence of actors, the networks that connect them , the how and the why. The easiest solution is to let them off the hook and say: Well, if you’re not sure, let’s not do it.

But last week I had another experience that reinforced to me how valuable informed guessing is. If I know very little about a situation and am faced with an expert who is just overwhelmed with its complexity I’d say the best solution is to acknowledge together that this is just a best guess and that we won’t use this as a truth written in stone. By freeing the interview partner of the responsiblity to present the absolute truth about the matter (who would be able to do that anyway, talking about social networks?), you create a safe environment, where you can together explore the knowledge and insights he or she has right to its edges, where things get blurry.

At the end of this last interview, my interview partner said: “I didn’t know I knew all this.”

Why is that? How can that be? Shouldn’t you know what you know?

I suppose it has something to do with the fact that we learn in many ways, by observing, experiencing, reading, talking etc. All different kinds of impressions enter us all the time. But to get awareness of what we have learned, we need to find an expression for this knowledge, either by putting it into words or pictures or by doing something. That helps us to structure our new knowledge, connect it to what we learnt earlier, give it meaning etc. Even if we just put it in words in our own mind.

So in general, a method that allows you to put a part of your knowledge into pictures and words helps you to know what you know. But especially if we enter a field where you have gathered a lot of different impressions and are unclear about what they mean, how they are connected and which ones are true, you might be very hesitant to express them, because you don’t want to look confused or make misjudgments.

However, I’m sure that it’s a much bigger step forward to get some tentative structure and meaning into a very cluttered field of understanding, than to make some minor adjustments to an already very well organized field. This is why you can create such a powerful process if you manage to make people feel comfortable enough to start making informed guesses and developing structure and meaning out of those.

The only big responsibility you have is to keep your end of the promise: It’s very tempting to use the results just as any kind of data, just as if the interview partner had been sure about the assessment. So even after the actual interview situation is over it’s part of the interviewers responsibility to keep in mind that the interview partner wanted this to be seen as a tentative picture – make sure to present it as such and to follow the leads and open questions you discovered while mapping.

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