Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer


Here is an excerpt from a “classic” article written by David Gray published in 2003 in the Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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In recent years, the chief knowledge officer has found a home in the executive suite as companies have come to realize that often their single most important asset is their intellectual capital. The time may be ripe, though, for the CKO to be joined by the “CIO”—a manager not of information but of ignorance.

Little attention has been paid to ignorance as a precious resource. Unlike knowledge, which is infinitely reusable, ignorance is a one-shot deal: Once it has been displaced by knowledge, it can be hard to get back. And after it’s gone, we are more apt to follow well-worn paths to find answers than to exert our sense of what we don’t know in order to probe new options. Knowledge can stand in the way of innovation. Solved problems tend to stay solved—sometimes disastrously so.

Unlike knowledge, which is infinitely reusable, ignorance is a one-shot deal: Once it’s gone, it can be hard to get back.

Most of us will cheerfully acknowledge our ignorance about plenty of things. But few of us would dare to cultivate a healthy ignorance, or nescience, within our own fields of endeavor, where we often take pride in what we purport to know. (The word “nescience,” which simply means a lack of knowledge or awareness, may be a more fitting term for us to use, as it does not carry the pejorative connotations of “ignorance.”)

Many eminent thinkers have commented on the tyranny of knowledge. The management literature talks about unlearning standard ways of doing business and gleefully trots out examples of spectacularly wrong predictions by renowned scientists and business leaders whose pronouncements were narrowly based on accepted intelligence. That doesn’t mean we’re better off being ignorant, but recognizing the value of nescience may help us manage better. Indeed, the job of the astute “nescience manager” is to steer attention away from the known to terra incognita. Four principles emphasizing nescience over knowledge can guide this exploration.

[Here are the first two.]

The Principle of Deferment.

Nescience is fruitful when managers want new ideas. Yet the impulse is always to fill the vacuum with ready knowledge, which makes us feel that at least we’re getting somewhere. The trick is to delay this thrust into knowledge, to shelter nescience as long as possible. Even a hypothesis can be the beginning of the end of nescience. Once the options are on the table, or the two-by-two matrix has been drawn, thinking becomes bounded. Indeed, the exploration of nescience often happens, if at all, only where all the known avenues are unattractive. Take the case of a high-cost manufacturer of paper products that was facing an array of unpalatable alternatives. Instead of reflexively analyzing the standard change options (modernizing equipment, selling out, shutting down), executives at the company kept an open mind. This allowed them to tune in a weak signal emerging from one anomalously profitable customer—a signal that ultimately led the company to a new strategy based on making highly specialized paper products. This new approach turned the plant’s outdated, high-cost equipment into a source of advantage. By acknowledging their nescience, the executives interrupted their natural slide into conventional business analysis.

The Principle of Prematurity.

This is a necessary counterpart to the first principle: Managing nescience means abandoning the idea that you must have complete knowledge before you can act. Adopting the new strategy meant that the paper company’s executives had to implement revolutionary process changes whose consequences they could not predict for sure. The fog of uncertainty around these changes was ultimately pierced only by the executives’ action. Every leap that nescience managers take will inevitably seem premature, but critical learning very often comes from adjusting to unforeseen circumstances that no planning could presuppose.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Gray is a member of the Boston Consulting Group’s Strategy Institute in Boston and the director of the firm’s Strategy Gallery.


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