Ignorance is a Precious Resource

The value of what you don't know:

Little attention has been paid to ignorance as a precious resource. Unlike knowledge, which is infinitely reusable, ignorance is a one-shot deal: Once it has been displaced by knowledge, it can be hard to get back. And after it’s gone, we are more apt to follow well-worn paths to find answers than to exert our sense of what we don’t know in order to probe new options. Knowledge can stand in the way of innovation. Solved problems tend to stay solved—sometimes disastrously so.

The author goes on to recommend four ways to cultivate healthy ignorance in your organization.

Ignorance is one reason why young entrepreneurs succeed when they do — they're ignorant about how the world works so they ask dumb questions, challenge inbred assumptions, and dare the thing that age will fear.

In a post I wrote 2.5 years ago entitled How do you fall upwards? I listed three suggestions in this arena, including "cultivate the naive mind" (not as tactically useful as the above-linked article) and "spend time with children."

(hat tip to the book Chief Culture Officer which comes out in November. I will blog more about it at that time.)

5 comments on “Ignorance is a Precious Resource
  • “Solved problems tend to stay solved—sometimes disastrously so.”

    Well said. Solved problems tend to develop insular tendencies that make you feel problems are just so much and there are no more to solve. The global economic meltdown testifies that – where Risk Managers armed with exotic quant tools didn’t foresee the systemic breakdown and global contagion of financial markets.

    The merit is not in ignorance per se, but it is in the awareness of its existence and its extent. Risk managers assumed there is no risk in “the unknown” because they had little or no data on them. They modeled risks where they had data, but lost focus on areas where there lay real risks. And the whole world paid the price – oops still paying…

  • I keep remembering back to 2003 when everyone thought it hilarious and silly that Rumsfeld mentioned ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. He may not pass our moral filters but he is a smart, if dangerous, guy. But that really was the point he was making. Ignorance is a far better epistemological tool than knowledge can ever be. Also I know what you mean by ‘spend time with children’ but that really is a toughie in the suspicious societal environment in which we now live.

  • Ben: Excellent post. Research indicates clearly that expertise shuts off a person from new learning. Kelley of IDEO writes disparagingly of people whose expertise blinds them to innovation. You know the line, “it’s never been done that way before.” I meet it head-on in business…although I can get away with challenging the line, others can’t. My son-in-law, a Harvard reserch physician/scientist tells me it’s a huge problem in his field.

  • Whenever I’m looking at a problem area, I like to try to solve it myself first, or at least make some progress, before looking around at what other people have done. Not only is it more fun, but it increases the likelihood that I’ll have a novel or better solution, and furthermore it improves my understanding of the extant approaches when I do look at them.

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