Ask Someone Who Doesn't Know

Quick Summary: As they say, “you can’t see the forest for the trees”, ask an outsider for help.


It is easy to fall into the trap of “group think” in which multiple people with the same backgrounds and experience accept events or develop common understandings based on the past.  Involving individuals with no preconceived ideas can provide insight and new ways of looking at old problems.

At first glance, the title of this article probably does not make any sense.  Extending it to “Ask Someone Who Doesn’t Know About Your Business” may make it even more confusing.  Common wisdom tells us that we should surround ourselves with people that are much smarter (or knowledgeable) than we are. It is hard to argue with that advice.  However, there are times when conventional knowledge, based on history, may not allow us to think objectively.  This concept is partially captured by the overused term of thinking outside the box.  Probably a better way to frame this discussion is to find someone who does not even know that there is a box!

Entrepreneurs and startups typically form a board of advisors.  These board members, often for no compensation, are willing to give their time and advice to the company.  Most often the advisors recruited are experienced executives who are very familiar with the company’s market focus.  Their experience can be of tremendous value to the company in helping them avoid pitfalls and position their offering properly vis-à-vis competitors or market needs.  However, well-intentioned these past experts may be they may also have blinders due to preconceived notions of what has worked and what has not worked in the past.  In this case, past experience and intimate knowledge can be a burden.   Involving someone without the “burden” of past experience can offer a fresh perspective by their innocent comments that are contrary to conventional wisdom.

On the surface, the involvement of advisors with no applicable experience may seem to be a waste of time getting them up to speed on the business.  In most cases, explaining the business to them, along with your preconceived notions may seem counterproductive.  However, as you are describing your business along with your assumptions, they may simply ask “why do you think this is so; can you really verify it?”.  Their unbiased view may cause you to re-think some very important aspects of your business.

In the article in this series, “Selective Scalability”, the comment was made that the business success equation is the same for all companies.  All companies must address the same issues (e.g. marketing, sales, development, service, etc.).  The only difference is what issues need to be addressed at any given time.  An outsider, with no specific knowledge of the actual business, may be able to focus on other issues that others simply do not consider.

An excellent example of this methodology is a process known as The 5 Whys.  It was first introduced by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors.  It was developed during Toyota’s quest for improved manufacturing quality.  It consists of asking “why” in succession with the answer to each “why” question being the basis for the next question.  Repeating this process five times has shown to be adequate in reaching the root cause of the issue in question.  An outsider, with no specific knowledge, can ask these questions and look for logical answers.  Acceptable answers cannot include “we have always done it that way” or “that is just the way it is” as are often the assumed answers by those steeped in the tradition of the business.

There is, of course, a great benefit in having a group of advisors with different backgrounds to provide well-rounded perspectives.  This group should include those that “know” as well as those that “do not know”.  Finally, a two-part phrase that helps provide a proper perspective is “Education teaches one to spell experience, and wisdom is knowing when to ignore experience”.  Individuals that don’t know can help you re-learn what you thought you already knew.


Article Number : 3.040306   

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