Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Power of Ignorance: Turning What You Don’t Know Into an Advantage


I’m ignorant. There, I said it.

It feels great to get that off my chest. I started a new role at Autodesk 8 months ago, knowing next to nothing about 3D design, additive manufacturing, CFD, BIM, or even the company's flagship products like AutoCAD.

Why am I in such a celebratory mood about this? Because this very lack of knowledge, plus what seems like a lifetime in open source & community, has prepared me to look at things from a different (and much wider) perspective. This is an important component of my job, and I believe nearly anyone can learn a lot from this approach. Anthony K. Tjan said it best in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article:

If desperation is the mother of innovation, then ignorance might be its father.

Let me be clear that ignorance is the starting point, and if you never move past that, it does you no good. But, ignorance, combined with a drive to become enlightened, is the recipe for mastery of anything. Learning how to ask great questions is key in this endeavor, but it's also equally important to be supportive in answering those questions.  Scott Merrill has some great suggestions for that in a 2015 article on opensource.com.

‘Framing’ your questions in the right way is critical as well. Just saying ‘I don’t know’ with an implied ‘tell me everything’ rarely gets results. Think about being explicit – ‘I don’t know x, but here’s what I’ve tried to find…’ or ‘I don’t know y, and I hear you’re the subject matter expert on this, can you help?’ Framing things in this way shows your willingness to be humble, but your eagerness to learn. Simply showing up ignorant, with an expectation that people will just ‘fill you in’ because of who you are, never works. In short, ignorance, used properly, can be disarming to those you’re trying to get knowledge from.

Clichés abound in this context, for example, ‘try to learn something new every day.’ While that’s a laudable goal, I think it’s far more important to focus on a plan to acquire knowledge in chunks that you can piece together yourself into a larger puzzle. This also relieves some of the pressure to collect facts every day (in isolation), while lacking a good way to immediately combine them.

Why is this important to not only personal growth, but corporate health as well? Knowledge transfer is generally easier when it’s ‘pull’ vs ‘push.’ Engaged (‘ignorant’) participants are more likely to absorb and re-share information if they can do it on their own, instead of it being forced from above.

I can see some of you out there in Engineering Land giving me the wary eye… :)

‘What, he wants me to admit I don’t know something!? – Is he crazy?’ Well, that remains to be seen, but I speak from experience in this regard. Admitting that you don’t know is incredibly freeing when you turn it around and look at it as a challenge (something we engineers love) to become better at something. So, I heartily encourage you to embrace your ignorance as a stepping stone to improving yourself and, even more importantly, the companies you work for.

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