Intelligent Naivety: The vitality of inexperience


The great wave makers in any category are those who are new to it.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon was a hedge fund manager when he determined there was an opportunity to go into online retailing, and start up in a garage with his father’s pension fund behind him.

Reed Hastings, with no prior experience of the film and television industry, applied the gym-model of subscription to movie rentals to create Netflix.

James Dyson, who had studied furniture and interior design, rather than engineering, in college, had no experience in vacuum cleaning - his previous invention was a new kind of wheelbarrow.

So, what’s the point here?

The point is we are taught that category experience is valuable, perhaps essential. But far from category inexperience being a drawback, it has proved to have a vitality that allows new players to envision fresh possibilities in the category, possibilities that those who have worked for years in the category are unable to see because they have grown too close to the status quo.

Look at Bezos, Hastings, Dyson: Naivety, intelligently applied naivety, has changed the face of the categories around us more profoundly than all the MBA expertise in the world.

This goes beyond marketing.

The photographer Robert Frank, whose 1955 masterwork, The Americans, a visual study in 83 images of all levels of American society, has been hailed as the photographic equivalent of the Great American Novel, wasn’t an American at all; he was Swiss.

The creative breakthroughs of the 1960s, the golden age of US advertising, were credited by some New Yorkers at the time to an influx of minorities with strong cultures of their own into a profession historically dominated by WASPs. Creative thinkers from Italian and Jewish cultures, the theory went, were able to bring fresh insight to familiar categories that those in more mainstream US culture were too close to see.

The only artist to really capture the light in California was an Englishman, David Hockney.

And so on.

In other words, it’s what we call ‘Intelligent Naivety’. And it is the questioning attitude born of applied inexperience, rather than familiarity with the category, that has changed the face of the categories around us in the most profound way.

Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard has said of his approach: ‘‘I would never be happy playing by the normal rules of business. I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from those pasty- faced corpses in suits I saw in airline magazine ads... I wanted to be a fur trapper when I grew up.’’

Yet while the idea of exchanging our normal office attire for beaver pelts is an intriguing one, we might, as challengers wanting to take a larger group with us, need something a little more systematic in our approach from a strategic point of view.

And by Intelligent Naivety we mean in reality something more than ‘‘do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.’’

We mean, very specifically, to bring a fresh and dynamic set of questions to the category, a set of questions that deliberately breaks with the immediate past of the category (and our brand, if we are an established player) and looks at what we can learn from other categories—both in terms of what we can bring that is new, and also in terms of which bits of so-called wisdom we need to unlearn in order to break through.