The Advantage of the Novice in Innovation

Most organizations are in a constant battle to find the best, brightest, and most experienced talent to assist them in their innovation efforts; however, this may not be the best way to foster innovation.  In much the same way more common diversity targets (race, sex, age, etc.) are critical to seeding innovation success, diversity in experience is, perhaps, just as essential.  Individuals with the most experience, competence, and expertise are surely valuable, but may fail to ask the basic questions that frequently spawn true innovation.  Sometimes, having to take a step back helps change perspective.

The advantages of expertise are fairly well-known.  Experts can process information faster, with less cognitive load.  Experts can make accurate predictions and decisions using less information,  and can recover from mistakes much faster.   In addition, experts can often identify similarities between seemingly dissimilar problems, bringing new perspectives to innovation efforts (an example of where diversity in domain experiences can be beneficial).    All of these benefits derive from the development of sophisticated and optimize mental models.

All of these benefits make hiring experts (and versatilists) a goal of most organizations.  Yet, there are some negative aspects of expertise.  The most significant of these is that the highly refined mental models of experts often create blind-spots for experts.  Mental models are cognitive shortcuts allowing experts to ignore the details once they’ve identified the appropriate context.  In most cases, the experts experience and knowledge are correct; however, when there are minor inconsistencies between the expert’s assessment and the actual circumstances, experts can miss those details.  Even worse, if fundamental aspects of a process change, experts can have difficulty integrating those changes into their well-defined existing mental models. Experts are less adaptable to changes, which is often what innovation is all about.

Novices to the Rescue

Novices, on the other hand, have none of the advantages of experts, but excel where experts falter.   Novices are intimately aware of the details as they are still learning and internalizing them, developing their own, fledgling mental models.    While they may not be able to correctly determine the results of a change in the process, they are better able to identify and adapt to those changes.  Not only are novices better positioned to quickly adapt to changes in the process, their lack of sophisticated mental models also allows them question why things are done the way they are, and this is the true value of the novice in innovation: the dumb question.

You commonly hear the phrase “there is no such thing as a dumb question”.  Although simplistic questions may grate on the experts who take such knowledge for granted, the “dumb” question from a novice can be the jumping point for true innovation.  Why do we do this step?  How does this help the process?  What happens if we don’t do that step, or do something different? These questions force a decoupling of the individual steps in a process from the codified mental model and open the process up for innovation and re-engineering. They force the expert to see the details, rather than the big picture, and lay bare the assume rational and reasoning for why things are the way they are.

Add Novices to Your Innovation Strategy

Having diversity, depth, and breadth of knowledge is critical to innovation strategy.  Yet, it is important to understand this means not only having diverse experts involved, but also having diversity in experience levels.  Ensuring that novices are part of the innovation team adds a new dimension of diversity that may be the key to unlocking new innovation.  In addition, it helps you develop and train the next generation of experts.

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