In praise of ignorance

For businesses focused on expertise, innovation requires fresh perspectives.

Imagine you are Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. You just invented the telephone and you go to sell it to the people who should most be able to appreciate it: the telegraph service Western Union. The reply from their experts? The telephone has too many shortcomings to be of practical use. That aged well.

Anecdotally speaking, there are plenty of examples of experts getting it wrong. However, a 2017 Stanford study looked at 25 years’ worth of innovation in 231 surgical instrument ventures. It found that while having a few expert doctors on board was a good idea, having too many in general or any in critical roles stifled innovation.

Nonetheless, in the marketing world, companies are turning to experts more than ever before. Brands are looking for a perfect match of need and experience. Every job requires more and more technical expertise, with senior managers today expected to know the ins and outs of 10 or more software and analytics platforms.

As someone who has worked with many different brands, industries, and product categories, I sometimes qualify as an expert. By and large, I have found my own extensive experience to be a double-edged sword. It served me well because I have a mental and digital library of solutions, frameworks, analogies, and proven thought starters. This helps me lead groups to initial ideas quickly.

On the other hand, experienced people often inhibit a team’s ability to drive innovation for number of reasons. We tend to jump to conclusions. We fail to see old things in new ways. We are so good at a current process that we fail to understand how an improvement could help less experienced people. And we have a tendency to stall team progress as we get bogged down in learning, while losing sight of the problem at hand.

There has to be a better way. Below are my suggestions for maximizing the benefits of expertise, while minimizing its tendency to discourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking:

Bring in the outsiders early.

Most ideation processes emphasize the need to bring in outside experts. The problem is that they are usually added in the beginning to boost the team’s knowledge or brought in much later to provide insight after initial ideas are developed. Today, we have plenty of ways to engage both experts and non-experts—and need to start doing so as early as possible. It’s easy to use simple meetups to engage existing communities and invite them to join in at the ideation stage. You can also use companies such as Passbrains to access pre-built panels of non-experts who can quickly submit their ideas via mobile device.

Break down silos and hierarchy.

In many consulting and agency environments, the core team servicing a project or client drives the bulk of the innovation. Instead, plan on consistently inviting less experienced people or members of other teams to ideation sessions. They should be able to provide a fresh perspective and harness the power of ignorance. You can also encourage participation by gamifying the activities with small rewards for those who dig in and generate innovative solutions. To do this, however, you need to ensure the environment is fun and welcoming for these temporary team members.

Look beyond the usual suspects for inspiration.

Innovation teams often look to companies outside their category for inspiration. This is a good idea in general, but not if they always look to the same ones: Google, Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Tesla, and so on. Most of those companies are probably not analogous to the task at hand, and the lessons we derive from them are too generic to be useful.

By contrast, trend-spotting services like TrendHunter, Contagious, and WT Intelligence make a practice of looking beyond the usual innovation suspects to find emerging best practices and solutions than are better suited to inspire innovation. Business Insider Prime and CBInsights go beyond profiling startups and their sources of funding to share the pitch decks that inspired the investment. These are excellent places to inspire new ideas that solve existing problems.

Get it on the wall.

In an era dominated by Slides and PowerPoint, sources of inspiration can often be buried, hidden, or forgotten. I encourage my team to get more of the raw material and potential inspiration onto the wall of the room. The act of posting things on a wall and seeing a bunch of materials in one place can inspire both experts and nonexperts to make new connections.

Introduce design criteria.

A major problem with expertise is that it can keep a team focused on a handful of viable solutions, trading tactical progress for more meaningful innovation. That’s why it’s important to introduce constraints specifically aimed at leveling the playing field for experts and non-experts.  For example, the ideation for a new loyalty app may suggest that it can’t have points or any ability to redeem. A new delivery service can’t include a bicycle. Without these familiar parameters, the team is forced out of its comfort zone and into those awkward spaces where new ideas thrive.

While expertise can be a huge benefit to innovation teams, it can also get in the way. To harness the power of ignorance, we must instead bring in outsiders early, break down silos, look beyond the usual suspects, and get creative about design criteria. As history has often shown, putting too much faith in the power of expertise can make you miss the big picture. In a huge way.

Brandon Geary is the chief strategy officer for Wunderman Thompson, North America. 

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