The art of ignorance in innovation

The art of ignorance in innovation

At first, you’ll find this 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. Paradoxical and illogical though this may sound, I believe one of the main duties of modern leadership is to protect the '1%' that are trying to do things that have never been done before.

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

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

When you're working on your startup, trying to do something that hasn’t ever been done, by definition, you have no idea what you're doing. You’re completely and utterly ignorant. You need to reach that magical 'zero-to-one' moment of creative conception with people who have never done this before: people who "don't know what they're doing". That does not mean they are stupid. Far from it, in fact.

For me, the current human incarnation of the 'God of the people who don't know what they're doing' is Elon Musk. He constantly challenges the status quo, pushing boundaries and doing things that have never been done before. I wouldn't call him stupid. However, when he says he wants to land a rocket vertically on a barge that is sailing on seven-meter ocean waves, there is an army of conventional NASA scientists who will tell Mr. Musk that "this is impossible, farcical and crazy". But when people tell him what to do, he invariably tends to respond with: "I'll do it anyway". He loves doing what hasn’t been done before and is therefore the uncrowned ‛King of the People Who Don't Know What They're Doing’: the ‛people who DKWTD’ for short.

The more innovative the startup, the higher the percentage of Ignorant People. Personally, I would argue that in Silicon Valley and other hi-tech hubs around the world, 99% of people at the most promising disruptive startups are DKWTD. You might have 1% of the people who DO know what they are doing (KWTD). They could include a serial CEO, for example, who has worked in a startup before. Or a silver-haired investor, who understands the dynamics of building and scaling startups.

When startups have developed and learnt more about their market, have focused in on their product-market fit and have pivoted 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. This is the moment in which they start to hire more people who KWTD; this is the point at which you hire growth-hackers and marketing experts; this is the period in which you invest in quality control, management layers and an experienced salesforce. You don't expect these people to carry on innovating, instead you expect them to scale, to grow and to add solidity to the fledgling enterprise. Therefore, the percentage of people who KWTD rises steadily.

From 99% to 1% 

If you visit a scale-up, the percentage of people who KWTD might be up to 40%. If you observe a company such as Facebook, the percentage might already have reached 60%. Arguably, a company such as Google, which is 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 enormously in salespeople, managers and in building a bureaucracy of mechanisms to manage the Google empire.

But when we work with well-established organisations, such as banks, insurance companies, retailers or automotive companies, we might find that nearly 99% of the workforce are people who know Exactly What They Are Doing. Furthermore, often less than 1% of the company is trying to do things that have never been done before. 

And that’s not a problem. Unless the world changes faster than ever, or unless you have to innovate faster than ever in order to survive and remain relevant to your customers. Then you have to keep a close eye on that group of ‘Ignorants’ and ensure that their number never dives below the 1% mark. 

At my current company, nexxworks, we love to work with the 1%'ers. These are the radical innovators of companies. These are the people who are reimagining the bank for the ‛Day After Tomorrow’; the people who are innovating in order to rethink the role of an insurance company in the era of BlockChain; the people who are looking for a way to recreate the relevance of a retail player in the age of super-platform-category-kings like Amazon; or who are striving to reinvent the business model of automotive in a world of car-sharing and self-driving. 

In a government context, the situation is often even more dire, and it is there that we often find the ratio is closer to 99.99% of people who Know and less than 0.01% people who Don't Know. 

When we consider the context of this 1% within organizations, we realise that they rarely spend their full attention and energy on innovation. Instead, they waste a huge amount of (emotional) energy and focus on convincing the other 99% of people in the company that what they do actually matters.

The 1% are your company’s glasses against corporate myopia

Whilst the dominant coalition of the 99% is constantly in danger of nurturing corporate myopia for radical change – they just don’t ‛ see’ it – the 1% are in fact the ‛Day After Tomorrow’ glasses that these 99% so often refuse to wear. The people in your company who KWTD are frequently the primary reason why the 1% who DKWTD get frustrated, burnt-out and often leave to join a startup where they can become part of the majority.

When I work with this wonderful 1% Ignorant group, I encounter a huge amount of frustration, anger and disappointment. When I deliver a lecture on radical innovation, the room is often filled with these 1%'ers. They often reach out after the talk to voice their concerns, their irritation and their lack of recognition; this is extremely dangerous. The fate of an organization in the ‛Day After Tomorrow’ will rest on the ability of these 1%'ers to achieve greatness. 

Modern leadership faces the enormous challenge of fostering, encouraging and endorsing this 1% of ‘Ignorants’. It is critical for a 21st-century leader to seek out the 1%, understand them, support them and shelter them. They might need to be ring-fenced and isolated from the 99%. The 99% isn't evil, they're not necessarily malicious. But the natural reaction of the 99% people who KWTTD is to KEEP on doing what they've always done. And that is most certainly not going to bring you to the ‛Day After Tomorrow’. 

So please, seek out the 1% in your company. Let them show you how they will build your future.

Serial entrepreneur, advisor, keynote speaker and author, Peter Hinssen is one of the most sought-after thought leaders on radical innovation, leadership and the impact of all things digital on society and business. We are delighted that Peter will be headlining Learnfest 2019, you can find out more here.