Just as a child was the one to point out the lack of clothes on the Emperor, the greenhorn can be the key to sparking new ideas and unlocking innovation.
Invisible Roadblocks to Solutions
Where experts lead analysis and solutions with their knowledge, their insight can be a double-edged sword. Arthur C. Clarke penned an essay about prediction that resulted in Clarke’s First Law. This law states that “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
Greenhorns offer up possibilities. Asking new questions is the key to new solutions. They encounter the group’s rules – both the unbreakable and the breakable. When they encounter a rule that cannot be broken, they can shrug off the rejection like water off a duck’s back, freed from the need to protect a career or reputation. It is when they encounter the breakable rules where their insight is priceless.
Greenhorns might be new to the situation at hand, unfamiliar with the department, a new hire within the organization, or foreign to the industry. Inviting members from different parts of the organization to participate in project brainstorming sessions will help new insights come to light. Asking people outside the industry will identify industry norms. Soliciting input from someone who has no idea can be the catalyst for innovation.
In contrast to the expert’s ability to provide insight into what is impossible, greenhorns can ask “stupid” questions. Like children, they are free to ask and every question, where experts and team members may not experience the same freedom. We have all heard the Chinese proverb, “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes, he who does not ask the question is a fool forever.”
Greenhorns are not bound by the precedence or prejudice that defines the expert. Expertise is the accumulation of what has already happened, tried, thought of, discarded or tested. This formation of precedence and prejudice is a function of time. That is, it may have only been true when the expert learned it, and it is no longer relevant. Further, what about conclusions that were mistaken in the first place? Knowledge itself is fluid. Consider that knowledge once included such “facts” as women should not be allowed to vote, the earth is flat, and 6 computers should be enough to service the world. Now we know differently.
As the Heath brothers aptly describe, they know their subject matter so well, that they cannot remember what it was like to not know. This inability hampers their ability to communicate ideas. The greenhorn helps draw out and hone the communication from the expert. Thoughts and ideas are forced into simple, everyday language and terms. Simplification clarifies ideas, and helps solidify the understanding of the entire team.
They are the catalyst for change, driving the expert to become more of the expert as he seeks to explain and prove, as his knowledge grows and preconceptions fall. As George Bernard Shaw has been quoted, “No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.” These questions are the domain of the amateur, pointing out shared beliefs that create fake boundaries and render opportunity invisible.
The voice of the expert saying something is impossible is hard to ignore, especially with time, money and effort at stake. Investing against the advice of the expert feels foolhardy and downright strange. After all, aren’t they the expert, and they stand the best chance of knowing? This is where scientific experimentation, risk management and design of experiments come into play. When perception decides, potentially great ideas fall prey to human nature and logical fallacy.
New solutions, and all change, require new questions. Wide-eyed innocence of industry outsiders resulted in inventions that include Kodachrome film by a musician, the parking meter by a journalist, and the infamous toilet by the janitor. The gas companies did not invent the electric light nor did the telegraph companies invent the telephone.