The Art Of Ignorance In Innovation

25 October, 2017 / Articles
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You may find this very hard to believe, but the people in your organization who don’t know what they’re doing – the Ignorants, as I like to call them – are absolutely crucial for the future of your company. As paradoxical and illogical as this may sound, I believe one of the main tasks of modern leadership is to protect the 1% in your organization that is trying to do things that have never been done.

Let me explain. For the first 20 years of my career, I created and grew technology startups. I loved it. It was great fun to build a company from scratch and to see it evolve. I always preferred the messy early days: that pioneering embryonic rudimentary period, when you’re trying to build something new, something innovative, something that has never been done before.

Innovation starts with ignorance because it’s never been done before

When you’re out there in your startup, trying to do something that no one has ever done, you by definition have no idea what you’re doing. You’re utterly and completely ignorant. You need to achieve that magical zero-to-one moment of creative conception, with people who have never done this before: people who supposedly don’t know what they’re doing. But they are not stupid. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In my opinion, the current incarnation of the God of the People Who Don’t Know What They’re Doing is Elon Musk. He is constantly challenging the status quo, reaching out beyond the horizon to do things that never have been done before. I wouldn’t call him stupid. But when he says he wants to land a rocket vertically on a barge that is dancing on seven-meter ocean waves, there is a legion of conventional NASA scientists who will tell Mr. Musk that his idea impossible, ludicrous and crazy. But when people tell him what to do, his answer invariably something along the lines of, “I’ll do it anyway.” He loves doing what has never been done, and therefore is the uncrowned King of the People Who Don’t Know What They’re Doing. You might call these the people who DKWTD for short, or even “Ignorants”, in a way.

The more innovative the startup, the higher the percentage of Ignorant People. I would argue that, in Silicon Valley and other hi-tech hubs around the world, the most promising disruptive startups have a percentage of people who DKWTD that can rise as high as 99%. You might have 1% of the people who do know what they are doing (KWTD). This could be a serial CEO, for example, who has done a startup before. Or a gray-haired investor, who understands the dynamics of building and scaling startups.

When startups grow, and find out more about their market, zoom in on their product-market fit, and pivot through a number of MVPs, they start to zoom in on their journey. They lock onto a trajectory of growth, and start to transition from the zero-to-one zone, towards the one-to-many zone of scale and growth. That is the moment that they start to hire more people who Know What They Are Doing. This is the moment when leaders hire growth-hackers and marketing experts. The period when investments are made in quality control, management layers, an experienced sales force. You don’t expect these people to keep on innovating; you expect them to scale, to grow and to add solidity to the fledgling enterprise. And therefore, the number of people who KWTD grows steadily in percentage terms.

From 99% to 1%

If you visit a scale-up, the percentage of people who Know What They Are Doing  might be around 40%. And if you observe a company such as Facebook, the percentage might already be up to 60%. I would argue that a company such as Google, only 20 years old but already massive in size and scale, would probably have less than 20% of people Who Don’t Know What They Are Doing. Google has invested massively in salespeople, in managers, in building a bureaucracy of mechanisms to manage its gigantic empire.

But when we work with established companies, like banks or insurance companies, retailers or automotive companies, we might find that almost 99% of the people that work there are people who Know Exactly What They Are Doing. And often less than 1% of the staff at these companies is trying to do things that have never been done before.

And that’s just fine. Unless the world changes faster than ever before. Unless you have to innovate faster than ever before in order to survive and remain relevant to your customers. Then you have to closely watch that group of Ignorants and make sure their number never dives below 1%.

At my current company, nexxworks, we love working with the one-percenters. These are the radical innovators of companies, the people who are trying to re-imagine the bank for the Day After Tomorrow (a ‘distant’ future that comes faster at us than ever before in these exponential times)  people who are innovating in order to rethink the role of the insurance company in the age of blockchain, people who are thinking how they can recreate the relevance of a retail player in the age of super-platform- category-kings like Amazon or who are trying to reinvent the business model of the automotive industry in a car-sharing, self-driving world.

In a government context, the situation is often even more unbalanced: perhaps there we often find the ratio is closer to 99.99% of people who Know and less than 0.01% of people who Don’t Know What They Are Doing.

When we look at the context of this 1% within organizations, we observe that they often don’t spend their full attention and energy on innovation. Instead, they are wasting an extraordinary amount of (emotional) energy and focus on convincing the other 99% of employees in the company that what they do actually matters.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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