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The Art Of Ignorance In Innovation Peter Hinssen - November 10, 2017

Organizing Innovation 99Percent

You’ll find this very hard to believe (at first), but the people in your organization who don't know what they're doing – ‘The Ignorants’, as I like to call them – are absolutely crucial for the future of your company. As paradoxical and illogical as this may sound, I believe one of the main tasks of modern leadership is to protect the '1%' in your organization that are trying to do things that have never been done before.

Let me explain. For the first 20 years of my career, I created and grew technology startups. I loved it. It was great fun to build a company from scratch, and to see it evolve. I personally always preferred the ‘messy’ early days: that pioneering embryonic rudimentary period, when you're trying to build something new, something innovative, something that has never been done before. 

Innovation starts with ignorance because it’s never been done before

When you're out there in your startup, trying to do something that no one has ever done before, by definition, you have no idea what you're doing. You’re utterly and completely ignorant. You need to achieve that magical 'zero-to-one' moment of creative conception, with people who have never done this before: people who "don't know what they're doing". That does not mean they are stupid. Quite the opposite, in fact.    

In my opinion, the current incarnation of the 'God of the people who don't know what they're doing', must be Elon Musk. He is constantly challenging the status quo, reaching out beyond the horizon, to do things that never have been done before. I wouldn't call him stupid. But when he says he wants to land a rocket vertically on a barge that is dancing on 7-meter ocean waves, there is a legion of conventional NASA scientists who will tell Mr. Musk that "this is impossible, ludicrous and crazy". But when people tell him what to do, his answer invariably tends to be: "I'll do it anyway". He loves doing what has never been done before, and therefore he is the uncrowned ‛King of the People Who Don't Know What They're Doing’: the ‛people who DKWTD’ for short.

The more innovative the startup, the higher the percentage of Ignorant People. I would argue that, in Silicon Valley and other hi-tech hubs around the world, the most promising disruptive startups have a percentage of people who DKWTD that goes up to 99%. You might have 1% of the people who DO know what they are doing (KWTD). That could be a serial CEO, for example, who's done a startup before. Or a grey-haired investor, who understands the dynamics of building and scaling startups.

When startups grow, and find out more about their market, zoom in on their product-market fit, and have pivoted through a number of MVPs, they start to zoom in on their journey. They lock onto a trajectory of growth, and start to transition from the 'zero-to-one' zone, towards the 'one-to-many' zone of scale and growth. That is the moment that they start to hire more people who KWTD. This is the moment you hire growth-hackers, and marketing experts. The period where you invest in quality control, in management layers, in an experienced salesforce. You don't expect these people to keep on innovating, you expect them to scale, to grow and to add solidity to the fledgling enterprise. And therefore, the number of people who KWTD grows steadily in percentage terms.

From 99% to 1%

If you visit a scale-up, the percentage of people who KWTD  might be  up to 40%. And if you observe a company such as Facebook, the percentage might already be up to 60%. I would argue that a company such as Google, only 20 years old, but already massive in size and scale, would probably have less than 20% of people Who DON'T Know What They Are Doing. Google has invested massively in salespeople, in managers, in building a bureaucracy of mechanisms to manage the gigantic empire of Google.

But when we work with established companies, like banks or insurance companies, retailers or automotive companies we might find that almost 99% of the people that work there are people who know Exactly What They Are Doing. And often less than 1% of the company is trying to do things that have never been done before.

And that’s just fine. Unless the world changes faster than ever before. Unless you have to innovate faster than ever before in order to survive, and remain relevant to your customers. Then you have to closely watch that group of ‘Ignorants’ and make sure that their number never dives below the 1%.

At my current company nexxworks, we love working with the 1%'ers. These are the radical innovators of companies. People who are trying to re-imagine the bank for the ‛Day After Tomorrow’. People who are innovating in order to rethink the role of an insurance company in the age of BlockChain. People who are thinking how they can recreate the relevance of a retail player in the age of super-platform-category-kings like Amazon. Or who are trying to reinvent the business model of automotive in a world of car-sharing and self-driving.

In a government context, the situation is often even more dire, and perhaps there we often find the ratio is closer to 99.99% of people who Know and less than 0.01% people who Don't Know What They Are Doing. 

When we look at the context of this 1% within organizations, we observe that they often don't spend their full attention and energy on innovation. Instead, they are wasting an extraordinary amount of (emotional) energy and focus on convincing the other 99% of people in the company that what they do actually matters.

The 1% are your company’s glasses against corporate myopia

The dominant coalition of the 99% is always in danger of nurturing corporate myopia for radical change. They just don’t ‛ see’ it. While the 1% are in fact the ‛Day After Tomorrow’ glasses that these 99% so often refuse to wear. The people who KWTD  in your company are frequently the #1 reason why the 1% People who DKWTD get frustrated, burnt-out, and often leave. To join a startup where they can become the 99%.

When I work with this marvelous 1% Ignorant group, I encounter an insane amount of frustration, anger and disappointment. When I give a lecture on radical innovation, the room is often filled with these 1%'ers. They often reach out after the talk, to voice their concerns, their irritation and their lack of recognition. This is incredibly dangerous. The fate of an organization, the future of a company in the ‛Day After Tomorrow’ will rest on the capability of these 1%'ers to achieve greatness. 

Modern leadership faces an enormous challenge to foster, encourage and endorse this 1% of ‘Ignorants’ in your company. It is vital for a 21st-century leader to seek out the 1%, understand them, support them and shelter them. You might have to ring-fence them. You might have to isolate them from the 99%. The 99% isn't evil, they're not necessarily malicious. But the natural reaction of the 99% people Who KWTTD is to KEEP on doing what they've always done before. And that is definitely not what is going to bring you to the ‛Day After Tomorrow’. 

So please, find out now who the 1% are in your company. And then let them show you how they will build your future.

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Peter Hinssen

Peter is a serial entrepreneur, Forbes contributor, LinkedIn Influencer, best-selling author and one of the most sought-after thought leaders on organizing for the Day After Tomorrow,...