Innovation: The Art of Ignorance

This may seem unbelievable to you, but those in your organization that don’t know what they’re doing – the Ignorants – are crucial to the success of your company’s future. This may seem paradoxical or illogical, but I believe that one of the most important tasks of modern leadership involves protecting the 1% of your company that is trying to do something that has never been done before.

Let me explain. In the 20 first years of my career, I was involved in creating and growing technology startups. It was a great experience. It was great to start a business and watch it grow. The early, messy days were my favorite. It was the time when you are trying to create something new and innovative.

Innovation begins with ignorance, because it has never been done before

You are utterly and completely clueless when you go out in your startup trying to accomplish something no one else has done. You are completely and utterly ignorant. It is necessary to create that magic zero-to-one moment in creative conception with people who have never done it before. People who don’t seem to know what they are doing. They aren’t stupid. They are quite the contrary.

Elon Musk is my current interpretation of the God of People Who Don’t Know What They’re Doing. He challenges the status quo and reaches out to new horizons in order to achieve things that have never been done before. He is not stupid, I would say. However, when he states that he would like to land a rocket vertically onto a barge while it dances on seven-meter ocean waves there are a lot of conventional NASA scientists that will tell him that this idea is absurd, crazy, and impossible. He is always open to being told what to do by others, but he will say, “I’ll just do it anyway.” He is a master at doing things that have never been done before and is therefore the uncrowned King among the People Who Do Not Know What They Are Doing. These people are sometimes called DKWTD or “Ignorants” in some cases.

The higher the number of ignorant people, the more innovative the startup. In Silicon Valley, and in other hi-tech hubs all over the globe, I believe that the most promising disruptive startups are made up of DKWTD. This percentage can reach as high as 99%. It is possible that 1% of people are KWTD. For example, a serial CEO who has run a startup before. A gray-haired investor who is familiar with the dynamics of scaling and building startups.

As startups expand, they learn more about their market and zoom in on the product-market fit. They pivot through several MVPs to get a better understanding of their journey. They set a course of growth and move from the zero to one zone towards the one-to many zone of scale. This is when they hire more people who know what they are doing. Leaders hire growth-hackers, marketing experts at this time. This is the time when investments are made into quality control, management layers and a skilled sales force. These people are not expected to stop innovating. You expect them to scale up, grow, and add stability to the fledgling business. In percentage terms, therefore, the number KWTDers steadily increases.

From 99.9% to 1%

A scale-up might have a 40% percentage of employees who know what they are doing. The percentage could be as high as 60% if you look at a company like Facebook. A company like Google, which is only 20 years old, but already large in scale and size, might have less than 20% of employees who don’t know what they are doing. Google has made huge investments in its salespeople and in its managers to build a bureaucracy of mechanisms that can manage its vast empire.

However, when working with established businesses like banks, insurance companies or retailers, it is possible to find that nearly 99% of those who work there know exactly what they are doing. These companies often have a staff of less than 1% who are trying to do new things.

That’s okay. Unless the world is changing faster than ever before. You cannot survive and be relevant to your customers if you don’t innovate faster than ever. You must also closely monitor this group of Ignorants to ensure that their numbers never fall below 1%.

My current company Nexxworks loves working with one-percenters. These are the innovators, the ones who want to re-imagine the bank in the day after tomorrow (a future that is faster than ever in these exponential times). They are people who innovate to rethink the role and function of insurance companies in an age of blockchain. People who think about how they can regain the relevance of a retailer in an age where super-platform-catego-kings like Amazon. Or who are trying reinvent the business model for the automotive industry in a self-driving, car-sharing, autonomous driving world.

The situation can be even more unbalanced in a government context: maybe there are closer to 99.99% who know and less than 0.1% who don’t know what they are doing.

We can see that the 1% of employees in organizations don’t often spend their energy and attention on innovation when we examine them. They are instead wasting an incredible amount of energy (emotional) and focusing on convincing the rest of the employees that their work matters.

The protection of your company against corporate blindness

When it comes to radical changes, the dominant coalition of the 99 percent is at risk of encouraging corporate myopia. They don’t see any disruption coming. The 1% are the Day After Tomorrow glasses the 99% refuse to wear. People who do know what they are doing in your company are often the number one reason that the 1% of “Ignorants” get frustrated and burnt out. They often move on to join a startup and become the 99%.

This amazing 1% Ignorant group causes me a lot of frustration, anger, and disappointment. These one-percenters are often present in the audience when I give a lecture about radical innovation. These people often come up to me after my talk to express their frustrations, anger, and feelings of being ignored. This is dangerous. This is a dangerous situation. The future of an organization and its fate in the Day After Tomorrow rests on the ability of the one percent to achieve greatness.

The modern leader must foster, encourage, and endorse the 1% of Ignorants. They might need to be ringfenced or isolated from the rest of us. The 99% aren’t necessarily evil. They are not always malicious. The natural reaction of the 99% who KWTD is to continue doing the same thing they have always done. This is and not what will bring you to The Day After Tomorrow.

Please, let’s find out who the top 1% in your company. Let them show you how your future will look, your Day After Tomorrow.

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