No Experience Necessary

One of the myths about innovation is that great innovative ideas need a base of expertise to build on, that only someone with prior relevant experience and skill can successfully innovate new concepts and improvements.

Nonsense. In fact, expertise can often work against innovation.

Rock & Roll wasn’t created by classically trained musicians. Modern dance wasn’t developed by the reigning ballerinas and choreographers. Horse-drawn buggy makers didn’t invent the automobile. And while I wasn’t there, I’m reasonably certain that whoever first picked up a club to defend him or herself wasn’t the strongest member of the clan.

Certainly, great creativity is at times layered on top of prior expertise. That’s usually the pattern in the sciences. Yet even where great scientific expertise is necessary, the breakthroughs are commonly made early in a researcher’s career, when he or she sees the field with fresh eyes. Great inventors like Edison and the Wright brothers were derided and dismissed by some of the so-called experts of their day, in some instances even after gaining fame and wealth.

Some level of experience, skill and expertise is often necessary to implement innovation. No one would grab a random person off the street to build a new product pipeline or conduct advanced pharmaceutical research. Making improvements in a product or process demands that you understand how it currently works. It may require advanced skills and tools. Still, it’s often possible for the right person or team to rapidly acquire the necessary expertise or find those who have it. That often happens most efficiently when the desired outcome is clearly defined. In other words when someone already has a great innovative idea to pursue.

It’s true that someone inexperienced may be somewhat naïve about the possibilities, but that’s precisely what innovation often requires: someone who doesn’t know what can’t be done. It’s also why a culture of collaboration is so helpful. You want those with experience asking relevant questions and pointing out the landmines; you don’t want them smothering new ideas that don’t fit some preconceived mold.

The novice who hasn’t “paid their dues” is often viewed suspiciously, as someone looking for a shortcut, some way to more easily compete with those who are presumed to be more talented or experienced. It’s a prejudice rooted in a desire to preserve the status quo and protect the prestige and prerogatives of those who already dominate the field (or your workplace)—exactly the sort of attitudes that hamper innovation.

In a healthy innovation culture, the newcomers and outsiders are welcomed and valued precisely because they’re not burdened by convention and habit, because they bring fresh insights and new questions; because they haven’t yet learned what’s “impossible.”

I’m not suggesting that knowledge is without value. On the contrary, it’s often a critical component of successful innovation. But research shows that prior expertise often slows the discovery of new solutions when the problem changes…and in today’s business climate the problems are constantly changing.

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