“I don’t know.”

Sometimes we feel pretty stupid when we say that, don’t we?  None of us likes not knowing, not being aware, and appearing to be uninformed or clueless.  Nevertheless, sometimes being able to say, “I don’t know,” is your biggest advantage.

Spencer Rascoff is the CEO of Zillow, the hugely successful online real estate evaluation service.  He contends being a bit naïve is a strategic force when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship.  There is power in having no preconceived notions about what can or cannot be done.  Those already steeped in the industry are entrenched in the industry, and that entrenchment often limits their perceptions and their vision.  Rascoff describes the benefit his lack of industry-specific experience produced as he and his team created Zillow:

“If we had been in the real estate industry before starting Zillow, we would have thought it ludicrous that we could use computer models to value every home in the country, we would have thought it impossible to launch a product with hundreds of thousands of reviews of real estate agents, and we would never have tried to change the mortgage industry by creating a consumer-first mortgage shopping experience.”

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying we should all be dummies.  I’m not saying we should never have any industry experience for our entrepreneurial endeavors.  I’m not saying industry knowledge is overrated.

I am saying we must recognize the intrinsic advantages and disadvantages of both ends of the spectrum.  I am saying there may be times when your dissimilar background will render you a more prescient visionary in your new industry.  As is so often the case, diversity’s power comes into play.

Rascoff continues to apply these principles.  In fact, when he make a hiring decision, industry-specific knowledge rates low compared to the items he considers more important such as intelligence, energy and passion, and cultural fit.

I hear echoes of, “hire for attitude, train for skills.”  Industry knowledge can always be dispensed to the employee; not so with the other items.  If that job candidate doesn’t bring intelligence, energy and passion, and cultural fit to the table, you can’t install them later.

The next time you find yourself saying, “I don’t know,” don’t automatically view your position as a detriment.  You just might be setting yourself up for some tremendous insights that could transform your organization.

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About James Meadows

Currently I serve as a training team manager for Tyco Integrated Security at a customer-care center in Kansas City. Additionally, I am a business consultant, a freelance corporate writer, an Assembly of God ordained minister, a Civil Air Patrol chaplain, and a blogger. I believe we are living in the most fascinating times of human history. To maximize the opportunities these times present, I have a passionate interest in leadership development and organizational success, both of which I view as inextricably linked.

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