When Saying “I Don’t Know” is an Innovative Answer

Posted by InnoCentive on Jun 12, 2018 5:23:51 PM


The phrase, “I don’t know” is one of the fundamental building blocks of science and innovation. It’s the initial answer to any question that has yet to be solved, yet it’s a phrase that many people fear saying.

Are you afraid to say “I don’t know?” Does not knowing the answer to a pressing question cause you anxiety? If you’re in the position of being a problem solver for your company, it’s understandable that “I don’t know” is a response that you loathe using. Most people, especially those who deal in research and development, consider it a failure, a veritable “game over” career limiter in scientific discovery. Career advisors have written advice columns about phrases to use instead. Some CEO’s advise eliminating it from your vernacular altogether.

But not knowing shouldn’t represent a closed door to a question. It should be the opening to a whole new room full of innovative possibilities.

I Don’t Know is the Start of Open Innovation

Open innovation begins with the phrase “I don’t know.” It’s the beginning of the search for answers using the knowledge of people outside your organization and your field of knowledge and expertise. In a closed R&D department, isolated from any form of exterior knowledge, “I don’t know” is an unacceptable answer. This is because the people who work in these departments are expected to have, or to find, the answers on their own as the “experts”. In these situations, “I don’t know” becomes unacceptable, and when this phrase is removed from the equation, innovative progress becomes stymied.

R&D departments can become very closed off from a literal world filled with knowledge, ideas, solutions, critical thinkers and creativity. When R&D leaders are expected to know everything, they are put in an impossible position. What does this lead to?

Waste, fear and the usual answers from the usual suspects!

People who cannot say I don’t know waste time, resources, and money seeking answers to questions they are unable to answer. They create more risk of failure for their company.  

The help they need in finding their solution exists!  However, they struggle to tap into the Internet of Prepared Minds (IoPM) that are found by asking the proper questions to these global minds in an open innovation marketplace.

The Right Answer is I Don’t Know

In the end, “I don’t know” is the best answer to the question because it opens the door to a world of problem solvers who may know, or possess the knowledge and resources to find the answer to your innovation problem.  These prepared minds connect the dots to solutions you may never have dreamed of for your problem and innovation need.

Dr. Henry Chesbrough, the founder of Open Innovation, insists that companies who rely entirely on their own research will flounder. When the doors are closed to outside thought, and when innovators are barred from saying “I don’t know,” innovation will eventually hit a dead end.

Overcoming the fear of saying “I don’t know” opens a path to finding the answers you need to any question. Is your company ready to find your solution using the open innovation marketplace? Contact InnoCentive today.

Topics: Innovation Insights, Seekers

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