[…] radical innovations do often come from people who don’t know what has been or can’t be done. I once had a student who worked as an earlier employee at Invisalign (those clear braces that replace the ugly wire things), and he told me that none of the members of the original design team had any background in traditional braces or dentistry.
He goes on to mention specific benefits of ignorance, particularly when you are dealing with a well-worn domain of knowledge.
I am generally sympathetic to this argument, given the importance of “social bumping” (the unintentional exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives) to problem solving and creativity. Think about the radical innovation in the music and mobile communications industries brought about by Apple. Radical change did not come about by sticking a bunch of industry veterans in a room and asking them to rethink the very foundation of their business. It came because smart, talented people on the outside reconceptualized those industries.
I especially like Sutton’s suggestion that companies think of problems in terms of their general type instead of the specific industry they are in. So rather than assemble a team of seasoned experts in retail apparel to solve the problem of declining market share in the face of lower priced competitors, you would assemble individuals who have grappled with the general problem of lower priced competition in multiple industries and domains. The idea here is that other approaches may have been successful outside of the retail industry that are nevertheless applicable. Since these solutions come from outside of retail they could represent a “radical innovation” once imported, giving a company a significant advantage (at least in the short term).
This isn’t to say that domain expertise is worthless or counterproductive. I think the distinction can be made in terms of incremental change and radical change (which Sutton makes in his Weird Ideas That Work)–similar to Kuhn’s distinction between normal science and revolutionary science. In the incremental area, domain expertise is quite helpful and the distribution of domain expertise to ignorance should be weighted towards the former. When it comes to radical change (or what Sutton might term radical innovation), however, that distribution needs to shift to at least 50/50, if not skew more heavily towards ignorance and outsiders. Often times companies manage this by creating separate work streams for normal and innovative operations, with Research & Development fitting into the latter area. The trick is to not wall-off normal and innovative folks. Complete separation means you will miss opportunities to mix the two knowledge bases together.