Innovation, Ignorance, and Coming off the Mountain

"I could use a hundred people who don't know there is such a word as impossible"
- Henry Ford, Sr.

We admit having a bit of a fascination with Henry Ford, a man, who in our minds, was one of the world's greatest social entrepreneurs and enablers of the common man, who also happened to become insanely wealthy to boot. How could you not be fascinated with him? When people tell us we're nuts trying to make money working with today's version of the comman man, the 4+ billion "poor" living in the Base of the Pyramid, we point at Henry Ford and say, "He was nuts too,"and then a moment later add, "and I'm with stupid."

However, it was Ford's notorious dislike for "experts" that we find the most compelling:

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.

Of course even Henry Ford eventually fell into this expert trap, misreading the very market he had created, but this fact doesn't diminish the strength of his lessons, rather it amplifies it. If someone as aware as Henry Ford fell into the expert trap, what's that mean for the rest of us?

Which brings us to the Base of the Pyramid Protocol and the upcoming field test in Kenya.

The six of us on the Kenya team are, perhaps, experts at something.

One thing we are definitely not, however, are experts on Kenya. We’re not experts on Pyrethrum, a critical crop to the communities we're engaging. We’re not experts at development either, though we've had a little training in participatory techniques. Our knowledge of SC Johnson and ApproTEC, two of the projects key stakeholders, is limited too, certainly no where close to an expert level. Finally, most of us are MBAs, which business school cynics will declare as proof positive that we’ve been specifically trained to be experts at nothing at all. Going into a situation that ignorant, what possibly do the six of us have to offer?

But think about Henry Ford and answer this, which would you rather be in a conversation, the ignorant or the expert?

Our take is that it’s the ignorant who will get the most out of the conversation. After all, by definition an expert already knows everything; someone who is already very familiar with how things should be done, someone who knows the best way forward is to build upon what you already know. Why do they believe this? Because most of the time they’re right; the best way forward often is just getting better at doing the same thing. In computer science lingo this is a "greedy" approach: an easy path to the highest point is just to go up from where you’re already standing. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t help me in a hypothetical climbing competition if I’m on a hill in Wichita and my competitor is at the foot of Mt. Fuji.

So while the world needs experts to climb mountains, we argue that it’s the ignorants who get us to question what a mountain really is in the first place. I may be a great climber, but I’m not going much higher until I recognize that I need to get out of Kansas.

That is, more or less, what the first phase of the Base of the Pyramid Protocol is about, getting us off our mountains via a collision of world views: the ignorant with the expert, the local with the foreign, the "rich" with the "poor". We acknowledge that everyone is an "expert" at something; we acknowledge that everyone is an "ignorant" at something. Then we get busy, as nicely as possible, knocking each other off our respective peaks so we can collectively seek out new mountains to climb; and we level the playing field so that the expert has as much to gain as the ignorant.

How to do that best is what we’re testing in Kenya.

Safi! [Cool!]

As for Henry Ford, we believe he became a victim of his own success. It took another American icon, Alfred Sloan and General Motors, to show Ford that he was on the wrong mountain: people didn’t just want the Model T anymore, they wanted the Cadillac, and in red too.

The world had turned color, yet our foremost expert was still peddling black.

Pretty ignorant, huh?

*Please note, this author aside, the five other members of the Kenya field test team are actually quite an exceptional bunch of folks.

Past “Innovation from the Brinq” articles:

The Power of Play Why Not? A Guide for IngenuityDiscordant NotesBambucicletas and Other “Cycles” of InnovationPoor People’s KnowledgeIndia - Innovation CentralBuilding a Better ATMKeeping it Cool


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