The power of a little naiveté

questioningMost of us are experts in something. Our expertise and experience are usually significant advantages that allow us to deal effectively with complex problems and situations. But they can occasionally be Achilles’ heels when they breed the type of overconfidence that causes us to overlook simple solutions in favor of more complex and costly solutions. Injecting a little naiveté into some problem solving sessions can spur new thinking that results in more effective and efficient solutions.

In my experience, experts tend to skip right by the simple solutions to most problems. Groups of experts working to solve a problem are even more likely to head directly to the more complex solutions.

Consider this example from the excellent book I’m currently reading, CustomerCulture by Michael D. Basch (thanks to Anna Barcelos for the tip):

Hershey’s Chocolate Company had a problem on its Rollo production line. It had worked with teams of employees to improve quality and had raised the consciousness of their employees around service in all aspects of the operation. This example involves a problem where the candy went through an automatic wrapping machine, and the wrapped candy was dropped onto a conveyor that dumped it into boxes to be sold in retail stores. When the box reached the specified weight, it would be shifted to a new empty box, and the process would continue.

The problem was that, all too often, empty wrappers would come out of the wrapping machine and end up in the retail boxes. These boxes had cellophane windows where the consumer could see the empty wrappers, and, although the box was sold by weight, the customers’ perception was of poor quality and the feeling of being taken advantage of.

The company put a team of engineers on the problem, and a new wrapping machine was not cost justified. Therefore, the problem became “How to get the empty wrappers off the conveyor.” The engineers then designed an elaborate vibratory conveyor system. A vibratory conveyor vibrates, and heavy things tend to move with the force of gravity. In this way, they could vibrate the filled wrappers off the vibratory conveyor to the box filling conveyor. The cost would be about $10,000 to move equipment around and to install the new system. Of greater consequence was the time. This line was working 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and was still falling behind. A retrofit would stall production for a day and one-half.

Fortunately, part of the team inventing the new system was the production workers who worked the line every day. The engineers presented their solution for feedback. The next day, two production workers were discussing the problem just before lunch when one said, “I’ve got it.” The other asked, “What have you got?” “I’ll show you after lunch,” came a hasty reply as the man left the building. After lunch, he returned with a $15 fan he had purchased at Wal-Mart. He plugged in the fan. It blew the empty wrappers off the conveyor, and the problem was solved—no great cost, no stalled production.

In the end, the simple solution was both highly effective and highly efficient. I don’t know why expertise largely blinds us to these types of solutions, but maybe it’s because our training and our past experiences have been so focused on complex solutions that we just automatically go there. And when we’re discussing the problems with groups of experts, as was the case in the Hershey’s example, maybe we also just assume the others in the group have already considered more simple solutions.

Hence, the power of a little naiveté.

Too often, we associate naiveté with ineptitude, but the root of the word, naive, is really more about lack of understanding or sophistication. And that lack of sophistication can be just what the doctor ordered in some problem solving situations. I can think of many conversations I’ve had over the years with hard core technical folks where I asked a series of “dumb” questions that ultimately led to those highly trained experts developing simpler and ultimately more effective solutions.

Next time you have a complicated problem you’re trying to solve, rather than just gathering the best of the best (and only the best of the best) to discuss solutions, consider inviting a few “differently experienced” folks into the room. These don’t have to be inexperienced people in general, but rather people specifically inexperienced in the particular problem being solved. The main idea is to get some different thinking injected into the conversation. One of the main tenets of the Monkey Cage Sessions problem solving technique I’ve written about before is inviting people of different experience levels and backgrounds into a single session that allows views of the problem from multiple perspectives.

We need our assumptions to be questioned if we hope to find the absolute best solutions. Let’s tolerate a few “dumb” and “naive” questions and appreciate fresh perspectives on the problem. We might be surprised what solutions we come up through the power of a little naiveté.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered the power of naiveté in problem solving situations? Or do you think letting lesser experienced folks into complicated solution finding sessions is a waste of time?


  • By Kathleen, November 9, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Great post, Kevin. I love the Hershey example (I also love Rollos, for the record, and actually remember the days when there was lots of empty foil in a bag!).

    An interesting inverse is happening at my job these days. There are a few senior managers who know the LEAST about what I do are the ones requesting the most complex solutions and refusing to believe that there could be a simple solution or approach. They want to see and think through and evaluate every million dollar plan before accepting that a $10 plan might be the right fix. Really, I just want them to take my word for it and defer to my incredibly superior knowledge. 🙂 This is a good reminder that I should pay more heed to what the “differently experienced” have to say while also reminding them that sometimes its okay for the best approach to be really simple and easy.

  • By Kevin Ertell, November 9, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    Hi Kathleen,

    Thank you very much for your comment. I think it’s a very interesting situation you describe. First, I’ll say that it’s ALWAYS okay for the best approach to be really simple and easy. Of course, that’s not the same thing as saying the best approach is ALWAYS simple and easy. That said, it sounds like your situation is a different sort of twist on the problem I’m describing, but maybe not wildly different than the Hershey’s example. In the Hershey’s example, the problem was ultimately solved by the people who were using the machine every day and not by the engineers who knew the technology but didn’t operate it day in and day out. The production worker who ultimately provided the simple fan solution made his point most effectively by actually buying the fan and showing what he could do rather than describe his simple solution to a set of likely skeptical expert engineers. I wonder if there’s a similar parallel for your situation. I’d love to hear how it turns out for you. Best of luck!

  • By Chris Eagle, November 9, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    Interestingly, I just read this yesterday. The summary of “always outside the box = stupid” is excellent.

  • By Kevin Ertell, November 10, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Thanks for your comment, Chris, and thanks for posting a very interesting article. I particularly like this point:

    “Most who think seriously about creativity agree that it entails not only novelty (that outside the box stuff) but also utility, and in order to be useful, it has to go above-and-beyond what is already known (that inside the box stuff).”

    An excellent point in a short article that is full of wisdom.

  • By Kathleen, November 10, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    Thanks, Kevin. I’ll keep you posted!

  • By CJ Fearnley, November 10, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    One of my favorite Bucky Fuller quotes is “Dare to be Naïve”. One of the biggest problems we face daily is our conditioned reflexes. We need lots of examples like this about how to check them to think freshly. Naiveté is one of the best approaches!

  • By Eric Feinberg, November 11, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Kevin, I have read this post numerous times today. It is awesome. Here’s the thing: While I agree wholeheartedly with it, I think it flies in the face of the expectation level of companies, employees and managers. In the modern workforce, companies – and the executives that run them – have a (in my opinion, misguided) belief that the person that runs the website/store/call center/customer experience should know everything about the website/store/call center/customer experience. To admit that you don’t know everything isn’t, as you say, ineptitude, it’s perceived as lack of effort. I have worked with executives across many industries and I am certain that they are all working hard. What I think we need to do is create an accepting culture that “appreciate[s] fresh perspectives” by “tolerat[ing] a few ‘dumb’ and ‘naïve’ questions” along the way. We need to instill in all of our talented co-workers that saying those three magic words – I Don’t Know – is a sign of strength not of weakness. My CEO told me that years ago and it changed the way I approached any problem that I faced. Thanks again for your post.

  • By Kevin Ertell, November 16, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Thanks for your comments, CJ and Eric.

    CJ: Thanks for bring Bucky Fuller into the conversation, and you make an excellent point about conditioned reflexes. There’s nothing like a sensible but naive question to cause us to question what we “know.”

    Eric: You bring up an interesting twist on the issue. It certainly is not helpful for anyone to work in an environment where they fear not knowing. I completely agree that saying “I don’t know” and then working to seek the answer is an absolute sign of strength. How can we possibly know everything? Anyone who professes to is not being honest.

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