Expertise vs Innovation

Thoughts on Innovation & Design – Part One

Part One of DesignTaxi’s Eight-segment Interview with Arnold Wasserman


Hello Arnold. You are a strong proponent of “expertise is the killer of innovation”. What is the most effective way, in your opinion, to “unlearn” all the knowledge built up over time?


The question of expertise vis a vis innovation is much more complex than this flip statement that I made within a particular conversational context. Expertise, or mastery of a particular field of knowledge or practice, is crucial to all human endeavor. I only want to be operated on by an expert surgeon and fly next to a jet engine or cross a bridge designed and built by expert engineers.

What I was trying to point to is the idea that carried to extreme, expertise can become a mind trap, inhibiting the exploration of “crazy” paths of creative imagination.  It is all in how the expert holds his knowledge – as a provisional launch-pad for ever-further inquiry or as absolute law to be defended against any challenge.

For example, in 1714, the British Parliament offered a money prize to anybody that could solve the urgent problem of accurately finding the longitude at sea. Sir Isaac Newton, then president of the Royal Society and world-acknowledged genius of science and mathematics, said that a solution would have to be based on celestial navigation. Solutions based on time-keeping would not work because it was theoretically impossible to build a watch that would keep exact enough time. John Harrison, a modest clockmaker, after 20 years of laborious trail and error making and testing successive prototypes, produced a marine chronometer that kept time with the precision Sir Isaac Newton deemed impossible. Harrison’s innovation in navigation made possible the successful voyages that gave rise to the British Empire.

Sir Isaac Newton is not dead. He pops up in every designer’s career with dependable regularity.

Organizations are similarly blocked by “what they know to be so.” The better an organization gets at doing what made it successful, the worse it gets at seeing what is coming next. Our consultancy has developed a broad repertoire of techniques to help organizations learn how to unstick creative innovation by embedding practices that connect human insight to strategic foresight.

Perhaps the most important single practice is this: However expert one is, one must always approach each new problem with what Zen philosophers call “Beginner’s Mind.”

Arnold S. Wasserman is a pioneer in the practice of human-centered innovation, chairman of The Idea Factory and a founding partner of Collective Invention.

Read Part Two>>

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