The Role of Ignorance in Innovation

Last year I was interviewed by Columbus CEO Magazine, and they asked me what was my “best mistake.” I declared it was “not having made a business plan” when I began the Idea Foundry 11 years ago.

If I had, I might have realized that there wasn’t a conventional business model to support it, and I never would have started the business. This wasn’t the first time I was aware that ignorance had motivated a new idea which experts might have considered impossible. When I was in college, an entrepreneurial professor impressed me deeply when he told me that the reason he succeeded in bringing a ceramics product to market was because he was not a ceramicist. Those folks already knew that his idea wouldn’t work. But because he, a physicist, didn’t know that it couldn’t work, he tried it and succeeded.  I’ve heard this called “the curse of expertise,” and sometimes a little ignorance can navigate around that.

But of course ignorance doesn’t scale; you can’t succeed by remaining ignorant.  So what is the right amount of ignorance?

I think it’s just enough that you can imagine a route to success while remaining blind to every way your idea can fail.  This leaves you with courage, creativity and conviction to see it through (great articles about this in Forbes and HBR).

However, a critical transition that has to occur on the route from complete pie-in-the-sky innovator to boots-on-the-ground pragmatist is the evolution from ignorant to knowledgeable.  An amazing analysis of ignorance-to-innovation case studies can be found in this article in Environment and Planning A – Economy and Space, in which they define two types of ignorance — “unrecognized ignorance” (i.e. “I don’t know what I don’t know”) and “specified ignorance” (i.e. “I just learned that there’s an off-the-shelf Bluetooth chipset and SDK that will make my prototype work, and I need to learn how to implement it”).

That transition can be quick or take years to never, and alas you’re often at the mercy of serendipity to cross that chasm.

However, this transition can be greatly accelerated by being part of a collective of sociable, pay-it-forward types with many different backgrounds. This is exactly the kind of community that self-assembles around a makerspace. With a friendly community of talented people to whom you can pose questions, especially via a convenient, 24/7, archivable and searchable online platform, the “hive mind” can rapidly point you towards the things you don’t know. This helps you to evolve rapidly past “unrecognized ignorance” and start learning what you need.

Thanks to Google and the like, nearly every answer is available now — the difficult part is knowing the right question. But once you know what that is, a hardworking self-taught individual can skill-up very quickly. That’s the grassroots, bottom-up manner in which someone with an idea can bring it to fruition, and I’ve seen this happen many times at the Idea Foundry.

But what is the other side of this process?  What if someone comes to you with an idea you know won’t work? Do you tell them so, despite those outlier successes that bucked the experts’ knowledge?  How do you manage your own “curse of expertise”?

In my first year at my first engineering job, I recall being fresh faced and innovative.  I came to my boss with what I thought was a good idea, and he scowled, waved his hand and quickly dismissed me, shaking his head and saying “no, no, no, we already tried that, it didn’t work…”

Of course that threw cold water on my enthusiasm and discouraged me from bringing future ideas up the ladder. Years later, when I was managing the Idea Foundry, I would regularly have people come to me with new ideas (members, staff, advisors).  More than once I caught myself doing exactly the same thing that my previous boss did — telling them that I already had their idea, tried it and it didn’t work. My mind was laser focused on whatever issue I thought was challenging the business, and this person’s helpful suggestion coming out of left field simply didn’t fit my current mental channel for me to consider it a value.

Eventually I realized my hypocrisy and quickly evolved to the alternative philosophy: “Thanks for coming to me with the suggestion! I already tried something similar, and I couldn’t get it to work because of XYZ. But perhaps you can bring a fresh perspective, think of a solution around that issue and your idea will work this time.”  Now you’ve accelerated their understanding of the problem by sharing your experience, and you have a new, passionate, innovative mind working on your problem, possibly resulting in a solution.

And if you want to help them cross from unrecognized ignorance to knowing what they need to know, and help them reach their solution faster, encourage them to join a collective of friendly, talented, pay-it-forward innovators.

I know a place. 😉

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