I’m sure you’ve heard the saying ignorance is bliss, if you haven’t, you have now. Is ignorance a good thing when it comes to innovation? Can being ignorant give you an advantage?
On the surface this may seem silly, how can there be benefits of ignorance? Does that mean if you take the time to learn and educate yourself about things that you’re actually disadvantaging yourself? Of course not, but it can result in complacency, or a lack of thinking outside the box.
When you’re ignorant however, you don’t even know the box is there. This means that you don’t have any idea if what you’re doing is inside the box or outside, which means you’re more likely to think outside the box compared to the average person or business in your industry. This is true whether we’re talking about product innovation, service innovation, or even systems innovation. A lot of times people just accept things as they are, and in business, that can be a dangerous thing to do. If you’re doing this, all it takes is for one competitor to come along and say ‘we can do it like this instead’ or ‘surely there’s a more effective way of doing this?’ If that happens, that ignorant competitor could put you out of business. You may have more experience, skill, knowledge and resources, but they could put you out of business simply because they didn’t know that something was just the way it was and that they should accept it.
It may seem hard to accept, because surely if you’ve been doing something a while then you know how it should be done. But that’s exactly the point, you don’t. You just know how you think it should be done, and how everyone else does it. Maybe every once in a while you come up with some slightly different way of doing things, but generally you just accept things for how they are. I know I’m stressing this point a lot, but that’s because it’s really, really important.
What’s more is that what can often happen in an industry is that newbies come in and not only are they ignorant, they don’t have much cash. This means they are literally forced to find a better way of doing things, because they don’t have the knowledge or the resources to do things how you do. They’re not going to beat you at your own game, and they know it. So they change the game, not even intentionally, they just find better ways of doing things to enable them to compete.
They’re probably not even aware that nobody else in their industry is doing things how they are. This is one of the reasons so much more innovation seems to come from start ups than more mature firms, a lot of the time, if start ups don’t innovate, they fail. There’s much more at stake for them to innovate than there is for a firm which (in the short and medium term at least) can afford not to. Of course if more mature firms don’t innovate, they’ll soon find themselves playing catch up with some start up which came along and changed the industry.
Having said all that, I don’t want you to interpret this. I’m not criticising knowledge; you certainly don’t have to be at a disadvantage just because you’re not ignorant. A lot of the time, any disadvantage that comes about to someone who isn’t ignorant, only comes about as a result of their state of mind. Knowledge is great; knowing about your industry can obviously be very, very useful. But thinking you know everything can be far more dangerous than knowing is useful. There’s always more for you to learn. Never think you know enough.
The key to using your knowledge to innovate is to think like a beginner. You can’t get complacent, ever. The key to not having some ‘beginner’ come along and put you out of business is to think like a beginner yourself. You need to force yourself to be ignorant. You should be looking at everything you do in your business and asking yourself, ‘how can that be improved?’ or ‘how can we do this better?’ It doesn’t matter whether it’s for the products you make, the services you provide, the systems you have in place for selling, marketing, purchasing, dealing with customers, or anything else you can think of. You can always improve things.
Also, because of the rate of technological change in the world, the moment you look at a part of your business and think you can say ‘we’re doing this as well as we possibly can’, something new has come out that means you can do it even better. I’m not just talking about technology though, you don’t have to be spending lots of money on new equipment to do things better, that’s not what innovation is about at all. Spending money doesn’t mean improvement.
A lot of the time, there will be cheaper ways of doing things better, or there may be ways of grouping things together that you do in your business. It’s hard to explain generically for every business, but hopefully you get the idea. The best way to innovate is to force yourself to think like a beginner, because that’s all the beginners who innovate do. You should aim to be like a child in your business, always questioning why things are done the way they are.
Thinking like a beginner isn’t the only way to innovate, of course. Another great way to innovate is to look at what other industries are doing. There are lots of great things being done in other industries that you could do in your business. When Henry Ford introduced the concept of lean production, he actually took the idea from the meat industry; He innovated by looking at what other industries were doing and applying it to his own business.
You can find out what other industries are doing by reading their publications every now and again, as well as just keeping your eyes open in everyday life. You may be in a restaurant having dinner when you notice they’re doing something you can apply in your own business. Once you start looking for new ways you could be doing things, you’ll start to see them everywhere.
You don’t just have to read other industries publications. You can give yourself a huge advantage when it comes to innovation by reading books regularly. There are so many great entrepreneurs with great ideas that could be applied to your business if you just took the time to sit down and read them. Reading articles online and listening to podcasts can also be a great way of getting ideas from other industries.
You can also find out new ways you can innovate simply by asking your clients and customers. Your clients and customers can tell you a lot of ways that you can innovate and improve your business if you just ask them. The best clients to ask are your angriest ones, the ones who are unhappiest. So find a way of finding out from your unhappiest customers what it is about your business that makes them unhappy. Of course, happy customers will have ideas too, especially about smaller things which can be adjusted slightly. So just start asking your customers how your business can serve them better.
Be sure to ask your staff as well, they might have a few suggestions they can give straight away, that they might not have felt comfortable asking, just because they might feel silly. Even if they can’t think of anything straight away, if they know to start being aware just like you are of things which can be done better, they might start coming back to you with lots of great ideas. Or you could just ask each of them to email you 3 things a week which they think can be improved in the business, and then you can start be implementing the most common suggestions.
Try and hire some ‘ignorant’ staff too, such as people who might have had a similar role but in a different industry. They might have some interesting ideas that they can bring across with them. Obviously that doesn’t mean never hire anyone who’s ever worked in your industry, or who has any technical expertise, but when making hiring decisions, try to find a balance between experience and expertise, and new ideas and ways of thinking. Hiring in new ways of thinking could have a huge impact on your level of innovation.
Make sure that you don’t follow the herd, never accept things for what they are, and remember that there is always a better way. Whilst ignorance is not a good thing, the naivety that comes with it can be. If you can use some of these methods to generate some of that naivety in your own business, you’ll be able to innovate like a start up no matter how mature your business is. So whilst ignorance can, help you innovate, you shouldn’t aim to be ignorant, try and think naively instead, as well as doing the other things that were suggested, here they are again just in case you forgot:
- Look at what other industries are doing
- Read other industries’ publications
- Read books regularly
- Read online articles
- Listen to podcasts
- Ask your clients and customers what you can do better
- Ask your staff what could be improved as well
- Hire ‘ignorant’ staff
Do you have any other suggestions on how to improve innovation, or any questions? Feel free to post a comment. If you’ve enjoyed reading this article or know someone who might benefit from reading it then feel free to share it.