Your survival may rely on your ignorance

Cultivating and harnessing ignorance appears to be a key theme from the January 2016 meeting of the World Economic Forum for individuals and organisations hoping to survive and thrive in the emerging 4th Industrial Revolution. 

Since the industrial revolution kicked-off in the 18th century; there has been an almost fanatic focus on the role of the expert.  This is reflected in our public education systems who are tasked with churning them out.  But knowledge and experience; in and of themselves, aren’t going to cut-it in this emerging knowledge revolution – the so-called 4th revolution.

In Liz Wiseman’s great book: ‘Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work’; Wiseman “found that in the physical world, experience matters – e.g. you don’t want a rookie surgeon. But in the ‘knowledge world’, rookies not only perform at par, but they perform better, particularly when it comes to innovation and speed. They begin unencumbered by knowledge, assumptions and limitations”.

I get to work with a lot of organisations struggling to fit their 20th century information architecture; both the technology and the people, to the ever increasing demands of this emerging knowledge-based 4th industrial revolution.  In large part, that old model relies on knowing what is required and building/developing solutions to fulfil it.  The Achilles-heel in that model is ‘knowing’; which as Wiseman suggests, relies on the expert; with their incumbent past-based knowledge and experience.

I worked as a consultant to New Zealand's Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) over five years from 2011 following devastating earthquakes in that year.  CERA was the Government Agency created to coordinate response and recovery efforts across the wider Public and Private Sectors.  As one of the folk tasked with establishing information systems; in the initial weeks and months; no one could adequately articulate their requirements.  They barely knew what they’d be doing tomorrow; let alone in one, two or six months.  Traditional BA/Requirements methodologies and processes seemed pointless.  So how to respond?  That said; the one thing that people could articulate was; “we don’t know what we’ll want; but when we do know; we’ll want it almost immediately”.  THAT, statement itself was the requirement; an infrastructure, comprising all the data, technical, people, policy, methodologies, organisation, governance and funding elements necessary to respond to continuous change.  That is what we delivered at CERA (download the whitepaper for free – link below).

For the most part; even in 2011, the technology, data and interoperability capability and standards already existed; and more so today.  The things that appear to be missing is the people element; our Governance model, how we organise and empower our people and a willingness to give up the security-blanket of our past practices.  What Wiseman calls ‘Rookie Smarts’.  Does that mean sacking all your experienced staff?  Not exactly.  In Zen Buddhism there is a phrase called ‘shoshin’ which translates to "beginner's mind".  In my view, this is what Wiseman is referring to by ‘Rookie Smarts’.  The ability to put aside what you know (or think you do) to make room for what you don’t; that ‘flash of inspiration’, that ‘light-bulb moment’.

Those skills can be learned and applied like any other.  We know that we are naturally innovative.  Having the freedom to BE innovative is the challenge.