'The way in which ignorance can actually be used as a superpower'

Douglas Kruger

By Douglas Kruger

If you lead a team of people, cluelessness may be your greatest untapped resource.

Next week, I’ll be speaking on productivity techniques for Jersey Business and BDO. In the course of an hour, we will cover a wealth of ways to innovate, increase agility and ramp up output. In case you can’t join us, here’s one for the road:

To see flaws in your system, ask the ignorant

The old aphorism says, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It captures a problem that plagues corporate companies, and it is psychological in nature. The more specialised people become, the narrower their total vision of an enterprise tends to be. Perspective can diminish, as specialisation increases.

In other words, do a job a certain way for several years, and it becomes difficult to imagine any other way of doing it. Flaws in the basic process may become effectively “invisible”.

That’s a problem. For three reasons:

  • The less efficient you are, the less profitable you will be.

  • The less convenient you are, the more you might haemorrhage customers to those who can serve them faster.

  • The more you lose site of the “point” of what you do, the more you hand competitors an opportunity to out-innovate you.

It’s easy to become a slave to process

When bankers try to think of new ways of banking, they typically don’t think of “different” ways. Instead, they tend to think of even greater complexity. They assume a basic operating procedure premised on the way things have traditionally been done, then try to add to that.

Along comes PayPal

Invented by non-bankers with a total ignorance of “the way things have always been done”, the founders of PayPal implemented a faster way to serve a need. Their competitive advantage lay in their disregard for – even “ignorance of” – standard operating procedure.

Think of your department. What is its essential core function? Stripped down, what is the basic point? That is a very different question from: “What do you do each day?” And as time goes by, those questions can have less and less in common.

If it has been operating for any length of time, your department will likely have amassed rules and procedures, norms and customs, systems and quirks which probably served a point back in the day, but now contribute to a gumming up of the works and a slowing down of delivery.

To perceive better options, you must see your business goals as an outsider would. You need to see the pain and frustration caused by the need that you serve, but also not be tainted by the way in which that need has traditionally been solved.

That’s a tall order

It provides a distinct advantage for bright, lateral-thinking people who lack experience in an industry.

It’s also an argument in favour of the intelligent but lazy person, who seeks shortcuts.

In a 2018 article in Time magazine, lazier people are attributed with saving time by innovating, thinking of life hacks to avoid hard work, and making machines or apps do their work for them.

If they are simply tasked with solving the problem, but not told anything about how such a problem is traditionally resolved, such a person might come up with unorthodox solutions. They are totally uninterested in creating complex solutions that sound like a lot of hard work. They seek the path of least resistance instead, which is often great news for the end user. Without the burden of knowledge, they are free to see quicker solutions.

Here are three ways you might recruit valuable ignorance, in order to see your situation afresh:

  • Enlist the newbie

In their first few weeks, a new hire can often see glaring flaws. Many things will strike them as needlessly complex. The trouble is, they are also eager to please, and may not feel entitled to speak up. Ask them to. Invite them to keep records of what they believe could be improved. Be sure to welcome their input, not condemn them for it.

  • Ask the outsider

Do you know an intelligent maverick? One who has no relationship with your industry? Put the challenge to them and ask how they might solve it. Describe your goal, and say you’re seeking the best way forward.

Find the right maverick, and you may hear magical words like “Why don’t you just…?” Even when their suggestions are artless or incomplete, remember that they needn’t provide a comprehensive solution. Look for the grain of potential in their unique viewpoint.

  • Ask your customer

By far the best qualified people are those whom you serve. Do you have a customer you trust? Would it be conceivable for you to ask them what’s wrong with your process?

Now, what if you don’t have one of these options? It is possible to artificially create critical distance. Try one of these thought experiments.

  • Gather a group of strategic thinkers and set the rule that the traditional way of doing it has been outlawed. Then ask: “How else might we serve the same need?”

Or alternatively:

  • We are now our competitors. We have half the budget, but our hearts and souls are invested in one purpose: to topple the original company. We can’t do it the way they do it. So how might we go about it?’

Or even:

  • The company has burned to the ground. We’ve lost everything. We need to keep serving our customers, but we need a new, cheap, fast way to do it, and we need it right now. It can’t rely on any equipment or systems we used before. What do we do?

Asking people to step outside of their own worldview and imagine themselves as the competitor can be powerful. The framework spurs a very different kind of thinking.

Why not try it at your next strategic retreat and see where the conversation takes you? Whether it comes from useful outsiders, or from the minds of your own team, introducing the element of ignorance can open up all new strategic possibilities.

Meanwhile, care to join us next week for the Jersey Business and BDO event? Just search “Breakthroughs that Speed up Everything” on EventBrite, and I’ll see you there.

  • Douglas Kruger is the author of several business books, including Own Your Industry, and They’re Your Rules, Break Them! He has won awards as a business speaker, including an induction into the Professional Speaking Association’s Hall of Fame for his region. Meet him at douglaskruger.com. Attend the Jersey Business and BDO at: eventbrite.co.uk/e/breakthroughs-that-speed-up-everything-tickets-870907667277.

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