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Solve Problems with Ignorance, Not Experience

“When you’re a little bit dumb and naïve, things get done that no one believed could be done.” We don’t know who said that, but it’s true. Consider the new, fresh-faced young salesman who marches into an account we wrote off long ago as a waste of time. We all laugh at his innocence and inexperience, and wait for him to get thrown out on his ear. But he doesn’t get thrown out. He walks out . . . and with an order in hand, no less. Unbelievable! Apparently, nobody told him that account would never buy from us, so in his ignorance, he just went ahead and made the sale. So maybe, sometimes, a little ignorance can be a good thing. For more on the power of ignorance, please continue reading below.

Solve Problems with Ignorance, Not Experience

Huh? Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? But what it’s really saying is, if you depend on your past experience to solve every new problem, you will keep coming up with the same answers. On the other hand, if you approach each new problem with fresh eyes and an open mind, you may come up with a great solution that your experience alone would not have. Henry Ford understood this when he said, “None of our men are ‘experts.’ We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible. The moment one gets into the ‘expert’ state of mind, a great number of things become impossible.”

Prior to the U.S. entering World War II, German submarines were sinking the cargo ships that supplied England much faster than the English could build new ones. The British asked us for help. While we had no real experience in building merchant cargo ships, the British were desperate and had nowhere else to turn. Industrialist Henry Kaiser, who at the time was involved in large public works projects like building roads, bridges, and dams, accepted the challenge. He didn’t have the know-how, experience, or heavy equipment typically used in shipbuilding, but he forged ahead figuring it out as he went. In his ignorance, he did a lot of things not typically done in shipbuilding at that time. He used oxyacetylene torches to cut steel instead of industrial cutting machines and used welding instead of rivets. He used prefabricated parts and introduced American assembly line techniques. As a result, he was able to build ships much faster (and cheaper) than the British shipyards were able to do. While the British shipyards would take eight months to build a cargo ship, Kaiser started cranking them out in thirty days. Then he improved his time to two weeks. Finally, as a publicity stunt, he produced a ship, start to finish, in four and a half days. Not bad for a guy who had never built a ship before. But of course, in his ignorance, he didn’t know that you couldn’t build ships that way.

We’re not saying experience doesn’t have value. Of course it does. Great value. But it can sometimes blind us to new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things.

Try this. Next time you give an assignment to one of your people, tell him what needs to get done, but don’t tell him how to do it. Tell her what, not how. Let her figure it out on her own. Unfettered by preconceptions or prior experience, you may be surprised at the innovative ways he finds to complete the assignment.

 
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