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The Importance of Ignorance in Innovation

Aug 14, 2008
We've heard it a million times. A great innovator is questioned about some early achievement, "We were too young and foolish to know that what we were doing wasn't how things were done," the innovator replies with a bit of a chuckle.

Of course, such creative revolutionaries usually move on to even more significant accomplishments, even as they become more sophisticated about their field's technology and conventions. But not always. Innovation may sometimes be accomplished by innocents, but it is never simple.

Anyhow, this is what we started thinking about after reading the article by Janet Rae-Dupree of the New York Times business section. Although Rae-Dupree never uses the term, the real villain of the piece is a term most often used in politics, "conventional wisdom," a phrase implying that there's a lot more convention that wisdom can offer. In political terms, this kind of cliquish thinking is often equated with timidity or even cowardice, but the studies Rae-Dupree cites suggest something a lot more basic to the human mind. The impossibility of forgetting what you believe you know and the difficulty of imagining, if only for a moment, what it's like to not know it. The result: products that are only user friendly if the users happen to think just like designers and engineers, not salespeople, construction workers, or poets.

At the article's end, author Cynthia Barton Rabe prescribes a sensible enough solution:

"'Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who've done work in a related area but not in your specific field,' [Ms. Rabe] says. 'Make it possible for someone who doesn't report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.'"

Of course, declaring the emperor to be naked doesn't always make everyone happy -- and there's not always agreement about just how clothing-deprived the old ruler may actually be. Just before the holidays, media critic Michael Wolff, a writer with no particular background or expertise in design, fouled the proverbial punch bowl at a meeting of New York art directors discussing socially conscious work. As per Steven Heller:

"... Wolff railed that design (and designers) were incapable of challenging issues or changing minds because their collective arsenal of alternative cliches, which has not changed in decades, is the same as mainstream ones which they sought to subvert. He further admonished the audience against doing anything if the result was not extraordinary. Instead, he said, just 'read books, lots of books.' The thud of 200-plus jaws dropping was audible throughout the audience."

Wolff was actually making the opposite critique as Cynthia Barton Rabe. The problem as he saw it was not that designers knew too much about their own field, but too little about subjects outside of it. Heller, who was moderating the panel on which Wolff spoke, ultimately feels that the exchange was a positive one, even if Wolff was engaging in a bit of rhetorical bomb-throwing:

"Valid and needed criticism from within the field is often seen as tainted by overt prejudices, which often results in vituperative argument on blogs and elsewhere. So the most 'constructive' aspect of this public critique was the fact that despite Wolff's acerbic, take no prisoners tone, issues were raised, myths were challenged... Criticism did not kill the discourse, instead it gave it new life."

So, at least occasionally, it's not so terrible to upend the table and shake things up a bit. Often, it really might take an outsider with nothing to lose to point out that, say, designers might be good at making stylish design, but weaker when it comes to generating important content. And, by the way, would it hurt any of us to read more books from outside our fields?

But it's never as simple as that. The outsider might be better equipped to diagnose an intellectual deficiency or an excess of insider knowledge than an insider, but when a hard job based on old tried and true concepts needs to be done, a skilled expert is always a godsend.

Furthermore, not every creator need be a true innovator as long as the basic concept is strong. Not all architects are Frank Lloyd Wright, not all filmmakers are Orson Welles, and not all songwriters are Bob Dylan -- nor should they be. Sometimes, you just want a better mousetrap, not a redefinition of the very idea of a mousetrap. Still, someone had to come up with the concept of the mousetrap before we made better ones.

This is a bit of a moebius strip argument -- there's always an "on the other hand" argument coming around the corner. So, we'll stop here, except to say that, at least in the design and engineering world, education that instills knowledge and skill without closing minds prematurely is obviously crucial. A really interesting look at how that may be done is on offer at, once again, Core 77. This piece by software designer Jon Kolko on the difference between working in academia and as a consultant in the business world offers a worthwhile glimpse of how learning is accomplished and reminds that good teachers, too, can be better if they're not too tethered to standard-issue thinking:

"Teaching, then, wasn't a method of telling students all about what I knew, because the only thing I knew about was design process. Instead, teaching became a way for me to learn, and to structure theories, processes, methods and opinions about design void of the 'business' context. Teaching is a way to explore."
About the Author
Nectar is an award-winning product development consultancy established in 1992 that helps its clients create products that connect to their users and expand their markets.

Innovation is key to Nectar's development process. We discover unmet needs while creating new and better product features that are key to differentiating products in today's competitive market.

Learn more at www.NectarDesign.com.
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