How Your Own Expertise Is Holding You Back

According to the Zen concept shoshin, in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few. So try thinking like the former, using these tips.

How Your Own Expertise Is Holding You Back

How are entrepreneurs able to create new companies and inventors capable of bringing new products to market? It’s because they avoid accepting the way things are in their industry and instead see what might be. It’s because they have shoshin, or, “beginner’s mind.”


Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist concept that means “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.” Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen master who wrote the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, summed up the philosophy well by saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

As Suzuki implies, the expert faces the challenge of knowing too much. She knows what works and what doesn’t. He knows what’s been tried and why it didn’t work. Unfortunately, by accepting these things as givens, they cannot see what is possible. Only someone who views things with a “beginner’s mind” can imagine what could be if the assumptions are challenged.

Let me give you an example; Peter Gruber, the director of the popular movie, Gorillas in the Mist, couldn’t figure out how to get the gorillas to do what he wanted them to do. They weren’t following the script, so to speak. So he held a meeting.

In the meeting an intern said, “Why don’t you let the gorillas write the story?” Everyone laughed at her but later she was asked what she meant. She said, “What if you sent a really good cinematographer into the jungle with a ton of film to shoot the gorillas? Then write a story around what they do on film.” So that’s what Gruber did. As he said, “This woman’s ‘inexperience’ enabled her to see opportunities where we saw only boundaries.”

A more recent example is that of Coca-Cola’s Freestyle touchscreen soda machine. Unlike most soda dispensers in restaurants, which only provide 8 or so drink options, the Freestyle offers over 100 possibilities by giving the customer various mixtures of Coca-Cola products.

Freestyle was developed when the head of Coca-Cola’s research team, Nilang Patel, teamed up with famous inventor Dean Kamen to reinvent the soda fountain in 2005. Using technology developed by Kamen to release minute doses of chemotherapy drugs, they enabled the new machine to mix small quantities of beverage flavoring to mix customized sodas on the spot. The results are pretty amazing, including a better-tasting product, wireless communication of customer preferences back to headquarters, the ability to test new products accurately, and significantly increased sales. Introduced in 2009, Freestyle changed the soda fountain game because its creators refused to accept the status quo and instead took a beginner’s mind approach.


So how does one learn how to practice shoshin? Here are a few ways:

1. Challenge assumptions. You can begin by asking what assumptions the industry leaders share about how it operates and what opportunities might arise if those assumptions were overturned. For example, in the steel industry it was thought that bigger was better because scale reduced costs. But steel mini-mills turned that strategy upside down and attained competitive advantage by being more flexible and cost-efficient.

2. Get an outside perspective. If you are a long-timer in the industry you may want to get an outsider’s or newcomer’s view to help you practice beginner’s mind. You can do this in several ways. You can actually bring in people from different industries or professions. You can also bring in younger people who aren’t tied to the way things are currently done and ask for their views. Or if you can’t afford to bring in people then you can do the next best thing and look outside your marketplace to see how other industries and disciplines solve problems similar to yours. Their best practices may work if you adapt them to your situation.

3. Take the Blue Ocean approach. This approach, developed by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, forces you to look at your offering and do two things:
a) reduce costs by eliminating attributes the industry takes for granted but are no longer necessary and reducing features to a level acceptable to the customer and
b) raise the standard beyond the industry norm where customers’ desire it and create new features competitors have never offered before.

A good example of this is IKEA. When Ingvar Kamprad started the Swedish company, the furniture industry was led by firms that charged high prices for very ornate products that took a long time to produce and were sold in high-end, downtown stores. As a result, younger people were priced out of the market. Kamprad took a different approach and offered low-priced, acceptable-quality furniture that people could put together themselves and sold it in large stores outside the city. After success in Sweden, Kamprad went global and IKEA’s new business model made it a worldwide winner.

4. Practice a little humility. For a high-level, experienced person it may be tough to practice beginner’s mind. It will take the ability to put aside one’s ego, temporarily suspend disbelief about what is possible and then being willing to try a new approach. Just because something didn’t work before doesn’t mean it won’t work now. Circumstances change; new technology is available, new types of customers come into the market and society’s tastes evolve over time. A little dose of humility will help one accept these changes and adapt.


So go ahead, practice shoshin. It will open up more possibilities than you may have imagined. And, who knows, it may help you bring new value to customers in the process.

[Image: Flickr user Gregory Bodnar]


About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo.