The Safe Path

Mindcamp Article

by Tim Hurson

The safe path is the one you already know.
It leads to where you’ve already been.

One of the things I notice as I work with organizations around the world is that the more expert people are – the better their reputations as knowledgeable doctors or lawyers or engineers or managers – the less likely they are to ask questions they don’t know the answers to. That’s not because they know so much that it’s hard to find such questions. It’s because asking questions you don’t know the answers to reveals your ignorance, and that can be pretty threatening, particularly if you think of yourself as an authority.

Ironically, it’s the very urge to feel knowledgeable that often stops us from knowing more.

Asking questions you already know the answers to is the safest path, to be sure, but it also leads you right back to where you already are.

One of the best ways to discover new territory, new ideas, new possibilities is to ask questions you don’t know the answers to. It’s like launching your own personal Hubble telescope, sharpening your ability to see more, and more clearly, than ever before.

“No, no, you’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.” – NEILS BOHR, Danish physicist (1885-1962)

hurson_timTim Hurson presented Youth, Adult, Elder: Turning over the puzzle pieces of age, stage, and gender at Mindcamp 2013.

Comments 6

  1. Tim

    My own experiences with creativity produce the same observation…

    The more some knows the less they question
    the less they questions the less they learn or grow
    the less they CREATE

    similar to the famous LIFE CYCLE graph from all MBA programs

    creativity happens when people are learning, they don’t know but are passionate about finding or creating and then develop]ing solutions.

    Then they mellow out and stop growing until they get to the

    GROW OR DIE stage (aka George Land) and they mentally begin to die.

    at the Grow or Die Stage is when you choose to learn again or fade away.

    Seems parallel to looking at Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy as a double helix…

    upside down

    gather information

    at the last stage it is time to start again, stay stable (safe) or fall down

    See you in a couple weeks.

  2. Tim, for me you brought to the surface the work that I’,m doing, especially w/ MtN 10…. and these are……Its about double loop learning. … DOn’t ask a question you know the answer to.. .” “What did you think of saying and didn’t and why?… What also comes to mind is the journey of unconscious incompetency > conscious incompetency > unconscious competency > conscious competency…. and the journey continues, if we so chose… And probably most importantly is breath where we have the opportunity to ask the question as if it is our last breath what do I really really want? Thank You

  3. Tim, Alan,
    I’d like to challenge you on this because creativity should only play a small part in anyone’s profession. The reason you have food on your table every day, that you can drive to and from places with relative ease, that you can be mended when you get broken at the local health centre, that you can study and learn etc etc is down to the fact that most people are most of the time working in a routine way exercising hard earned skills and knowledge. Being creative gets in the way of this and Alan how on Earth you conclude that such people are not growing is beyond me. You cannot know what is going on in the mind of other people when they are expressing their skills and talents in what you regard as non-creative activity.
    I ask both of you what have you done recently that is genuinely creative and non-routine (outside of course of teaching creativity -which isn’t necessarily a creative act when there’s tons of stuff out there already, most of which is well past its shelf life). Of course there has to be new ideas and new developments in all fields but if people kept questioning what they don’t know we would never get done what needs to be done. Creativity requires the right time, right place and right people to be effective.

  4. Kevin, you always reinforce the reasons I admire and like you so much!

    I couldn’t agree more. The safe stuff is important. We wouldn’t even be able to leave the house each morning, let alone find our way to work reliably, without it. All I’m saying is that if we want to discover the new (and heaven knows, we may bot!), one of the best ways is to ask questions we don’t already know the answers to. That’s hard for a lot of people, especially those in professions where not knowing the “right” answers can be dangerous. It takes guts.

    As to doing the non-routine, I’m writing a new book, and I find every sentence to be an exercise, often a painful one, in challenging the routine (I can’t tell you yet whether either the process or the outcome is creative, but I’m hoping!).

    Also, mounting Mindcamp each year (we’ve put together a whole bunch of innovative things this year that we’ve never tried before) is a wonderful mixture of the merely mundane and the nearly insane. But that’s another story!

    Cheers, to you, my favorite c•rm•dg••n!

  5. Tim,
    It’s the grit that produces the pearl! (not that I would arrogate myself to such an important role – but I do wonder why everyone agrees with everything here unreservedly).Re unsafe questions,It’s worth remembering that the majority of innovations in all businesses are step-wise improvements, and discoveries or break-throughs are always accidental, unplanned and unpredictable. Doing research (and I define research as the pursuit of answers to questions),is largely about seeking the next small step to expand a knowledge base in a deliberate, methodical way, and discoveries make their appearance through this process. When a discovery appears and is pursued it will answer a question that hasn’t yet been asked – at least in the context where it appears. Doing research the other way round by first framing ‘unsafe’ questions is highly inefficient because there are so many unsafe questions that could be asked and only very few will lead somewhere useful. In engineering and other professions this approach would be hugely wasteful. Maybe it works for writing though where the cost is minimal and time is at a premium.

  6. I’ll take the challenge, Kevin.

    I don’t agree with all your assertions. If we can broaden doing research back into asking questions, I think there are many examples of breakthrough developments that don’t follow your logic. “Doing research the other way round by first framing ‘unsafe’ questions is highly inefficient because there are so many unsafe questions that could be asked and only very few will lead somewhere useful.” I assume there may be some inefficiency, but for many of these examples there’s unlikely to be a rigorous no control to confirm that.

    Here’s one example: Steve Jobs and the iPhone. I contend that the iPhone as a concept is an answer to a question that had no answer (let alone a “safe” one!). It was a huge risk, entering completely unknown territory, in either technology, marketing, or sociological domains. Had Jobs not asked a question without answers, the iPhone would probably not exist. Othres may have come along and developed something like the smart phone incrementally, but it took Jobs’ courage and vision and downright recklessness to produce what he did when he did.


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