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Harnessing Ignorance to Spark Creativity

There are many virtues of ignorance and naivete in the innovation process. Indeed, radical innovations do often come from people who don’t know what has been or can’t be done.

I just got an email from a writer who was checking to see if I had argued–in a talk long ago–that true innovations come from people who ignore customers. As I told her, I don’t recall saying exactly that, but as I argued in Chapters 12 and 13 in Weird Ideas That Work, there are many virtues of ignorance and naivete in the innovation process. At IDEO and the d.school, we talk about “the mind of the child” (see Diego’s great post on this at Metacool). Also see this old article I wrote that draws on these chapters.

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Invisalign Indeed, radical innovations do often come from people who don’t know what has been or can’t be done. I once had a student who worked as an earlier employee at Invisalign (those clear braces that replace the ugly wire things), and he told me that none of the members of the original design team had any background in traditional braces or dentistry. Indeed, at least one history of the company suggests the initial idea came from one of the founders, who had no background in dentistry at all:

The company was founded in 1997 by Mr. Zia Chishti and Ms. Kelsey Wirth, who–as graduate students at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business–realized the benefit of applying advanced 3-D computer imaging graphics to the field of orthodontics. Like many breakthrough inventions, the idea for Invisalign® grew from happenstance. Mr. Chishti wore braces as an adult when working in investment banking at Morgan Stanley, which was awkward and embarrassing. When his braces were removed he wore a clear plastic retainer. He noticed that when he neglected to wear the retainer for several days his teeth would shift back and upon reinsertion his teeth would shift back to their desired, straightened state. It was the observation that a clear plastic device was capable of moving his own teeth that led to Chishti’s conceptualization of a process that became the Invisalign System. A background in computer science gave Chishti the insight that it was possible to design and manufacture an entire series of clear orthodontic devices similar to the retainer he wore, using 3-D computer graphics technology. He and Ms. Wirth started Align Technology in 1997 to realize this vision. And the rest–as they say–is history.

In this vein, Chapter 13 of Weird Ideas That Work offers some guidelines for harnessing innovation:

  • During the early stages of a project, don’t study how the task has been approached in the company, industry, field, or region where you are working.
  • If you know a lot about a problem, and how it has been solved in the past, ask people who are ignorant it to study it and help solve it. Young people, including children, can be especially valuable for this task.
  • Ask new hires (especially those fresh out of school) to solve problems or do tasks that you “know” the answer to or you can’t resolve. Get out of the way for a while to see if they generate some good ideas.
  • Find analogous problems in different industries, and study how they are solved.
  • Find people working on analogous issues in different companies, fields, regions, fields, and industries, and ask them how they would solve the problem or do the job.
  • If people who have the right skills keep failing to solve some problem, try assigning some people with the wrong skills to solve it,
  • If you are a novice, seek experts to help you, but don’t assume they are right especially if they tell you they are right.

What do you think? Do you have more ideas for harnessing innovation? Do you know of other instructive cases? When is ignorance dangerous and destructive?

Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility.

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