A New Age of "Innocence"?

Picture the scene. You've organized a focus group to figure out how people buy cars. Or perhaps you've put together a brainstorm to develop ideas for a new model. You've got a room and you've got the usual suspects -- and as a result, you get all the usual ideas.

Nothing wrong with this up to a point, especially if you're looking for incremental innovation. But I'd suggest that both approaches are next to useless if you want to uncover some really deep insights or develop something entirely new. And that where the thinking exercise called "innocent experts" come in.

I've been using this tool for many years, which seems to capture peoples' imagination. Here's how it works. Instead of running a focus group with "ordinary" people, let's say you jumped into a car with a series of extraordinary people and went to visit a few auto dealers unannounced? This is something I did for a Japanese company a few years ago. The unusual suspects included an architect, a product designer, an anthropologist, a psychologist, an MBA student, an insurance salesman, a supermarket space planner, and an assorted bag of iconoclasts and revolutionaries. Half were men; half were women, and ages ranged from 21 to 60-plus. Crucially, all the people were experts in fields other than auto sales or marketing. To some extent this is what Global Business Network does with its association of remarkable people, but many other groups I've seen are too narrow and parochial to be of much use.

On another occasion I put together a similarly eclectic group on behalf of a paint company that was interested in the trends driving paint colors and finishes -- only this time the meeting of minds met for a dinner discussion inside an art gallery. Why an art gallery? Obviously, there was the presence-of-paint-and-aesthetics factor. But more importantly, it was an inspiring and unusual space which I believe directly influenced the quality of the debate. Of course, you also have to pay attention to what the group is doing -- or, as Procter & Gamble's VP for Design and Innovation Strategy puts it, "listen with your eyes."

More than just a night out.

OK, so it sounds like a real party. But what are the practical benefits of such melting pots?

First, the groups are incredibly diverse in terms of skills and experience. This means you get a high level of cross-fertilization, giving you new perspectives. People also enjoy meeting those outside their own discipline, which again sparks conversation.

Second, instead of running the groups as formal meetings with agendas, discussion guides or set timeframes, the groups usually meet in the evening --often over dinner -- with the chatting usually continuing into the early hours. The result is a relaxed atmosphere from which come casual conversation, insights, and ideas. There is obviously an objective buried deep beneath the surface, and there's moderation too, though that's minimal: The best groups I've organized haven't needed moderation beyond an introduction.

Third, because "innocent experts" are outsiders, they have no knowledge of what's politically correct. Thus, they tend to ask questions that are nice and fundamental, or naive. They have no knowledge of "the rules" and are therefore quite fearless. Example: One innocent expert (a historian) asked a water utility company what it did and what business it was in. The client (the head of R&D) was at first insulted by the stupid questions. But eventually he realized they were catalysts for thinking about where the company could go in the future.

The answer to "What business?" included discussions about the transport of liquids, networks, telemetry, environmental monitoring, infrastructure development, purity, waste, drinking water, and even the role of women as gatekeepers to family health (the company was at the time exclusively run by male engineers, despite the fact that over half their customers were women). Each idea was then used as a springboard to develop potential strategies, products, and services.

Call an expert

So where do you find these great people? As they say, there's no shortcut to anyplace worth going, so you'll need to do research. There are a handful of companies like Fresh Minds that can help you source some bright young people, but there's really no substitute for building a brain bank of innocent experts yourself.

Obviously you need to be careful that innocent experts are not so removed from the area under discussion that they can't contribute. This was a point made a few years ago in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell who argued that "innovation comes from the interactions of people at a comfortable distance from one another -- neither too close or too far." I partly agree.

One of the problems with internal brainstorms is that people are too close to each other and meetings lack diversity and freshness. There's probably a sweet spot somewhere between knowing too much and too little, but my experience is that the more removed you are from a problem the greater your clarity of thinking. Knowing just enough has its uses, especially for evolutionary or incremental innovation, but naivety is probably what you really want if you're pursuing a more radical agenda. That's why most paradigm shifts don't come from industry incumbents or people with the most experience.

So what are my top 5 tips for using your own "innocent experts"?

  • Spend time finding the right people. You can't conjure up a great network overnight.
  • Invest money on an inspiring thinking space or event. It will pay dividends.
  • Watch the group dynamic and never mix people that are close in terms of skill.
  • Don't be afraid to let the group run -- if it's working don't stop it or interfere.
  • Innocent experts are generally not so much turned on by what you're paying them as by the subject matter and quality of the discussion.

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