Innovation through Ignorance

Admitting we don’t know something is often seen as a sign of weakness, especially amongst our professional peers. We are all experts in something, and so it is especially embarrassing to admit our own ignorance, especially if it’s in relation to something about which we are supposed to know what we are talking about.

However I think that being able to share what problems we are currently faced with is actually an incredible strength. They say a problem shared is a problem halved. How can anybody else help us if we don’t tell them what we are currently grappling with. The concern is often that if we share what we don’t know then somehow it will give our “competition” a psychological or commercial advantage.

However in my experience the exact opposite is true. Those who can say “I don’t know X. Does anybody have any ideas or solutions that might be able to help?” means getting to the solution faster and cheaper than trying to figure it all out yourself. And in fact it generally gives “us” a psychological and commercial advantage over those who are more secretive and closed.

Of course quite often we don’t even know what we don’t know. We all have blind spots, which need keeping in check. And again the best way to find these out is through open and honest dialogue with others.

The biggest shift required though is one of mindset. I’ve certainly found in the work that we do at 100%Open, which to some extent is all about dealing with uncertainty and complexity, and I must confess that I used to be quite unsettled when I was asked a question by a client which we couldn’t answer immediately, because I had mistakenly thought we were being hired to be “the expert”.

For me a big breakthrough came when I realized that not only was it ok to say “I’m not sure, but we can help you figure it out.” but actually that that approach is much more helpful in the long run, than just given out an (often incorrect) answer on a plate quickly. And I’ve now realized that in any particular setting we can either be the expert or the facilitator but not both, and in most circumstances and organisations we aren’t lacking expertise, but rather the skills to turn it into something useful.

The best way to change it is to try it with something small and grow it from there. It’s lonely up on the pedestal as an expert all on your own, or with only a few other experts to argue with. Rather why not confess your own ignorance and see where it takes you.

Because when it comes to innovation, in our experience it’s better out than in.

by Roland


  1. 100% Agree.
    I’ve always believed in Covey’s ‘habit’ – Seek first to understand, then be understood.
    It has served me very well indeed.
    However, in todays management environments filled with Action Imperatives, the phrase you mention is so often avoided at all cost – but in doing so ‘cost’ is surely the only outcome!
    In not knowing something then adopting your reccomendation I wouldn’t mind betting the outcome will be far better, reached quicker AND at less cost, to all.

  2. Thanks for your comment Lee. I haven’t read Covey (I must be the only person who hasn’t) but that sounds like sound advice. And yes I think it’s definitely better, cheaper and faster if you don’t jump to conclusions too fast and admit what you don’t know, but often requires a little humility and honesty, two traits all too often lacking in modern business. Roland

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