The Importance of Being Ignorant

Neuroscientist and Professor Stuart Firestein published a new book praising ignorance in science.I took the opportunity to hear him discuss this in an American Chemical Society webinar this week.The title sure got my attention at a time when science literacy seems to be declining.But it is worth taking a minute to understand his point.He is saying that starting discovery with a strong hypothesis of just how an experiment should turn out can introduce bias to getting the answer or any answer versus exploring what is not known. I would like to loosely apply his thesis to the art and science of new product development.I can’t count the number of times that someone has said, “we know or you must already know which product option/alternative is the best”.  “Pick a winner and let’s move on!”  Another frequent theme is don’t ask customers what they want or test anything; “if you don’t already know the answer, don’t ask the question.”  That may make for good TV courtroom dramas but it makes for very bad new product development.

I believe the key to finding creative new product designs or uncovering a hidden customer need is just what Dr. Firestein is proposing.Learn to practice ignorance, lose the all-knowing act, ask a lot of questions, and listen a lot.  The Value Innovation Process proposes a series of contextual interviews with the “Most Important Customer” in the value chain.I find that having a diversity of backgrounds and experiences on a project team is critical to avoiding the curse of too much knowledge in the rush to pick a winner.A smart and creative questioner is most times worth more than another expert in the field.  Successful new product developers are not out to impress people with what they already know but look to apply their skills and proven processes to listen and learn in their quest to innovate.Avoid more boring incremental product updates and learn something new. Embrace the importance of being ignorant (or at least learning to fake it before you pass over the unexpected).

Bruce W Janda for InnovaSpec, LLC