top of page

The Three Magic Words of Innovation

Special thanks to Nina Paley and her "copyleft" policy for the "Mimi and Eunice" cartoon above.

In their book Think Like a Freak, journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt provide us with the three most important words that few people use enough. They are rarely heard in board rooms, meeting rooms, or classrooms. They are never heard in political debates.

As Dubner describes in an interview with Wharton management professor Adam Grant, “A really basic rule of thumb or a basic MO that happens very frequently now is a firm will say, ‘We need to come up with a plan or a solution. Let’s get our top 20 people together in a room for an hour’ — that’s 20 person hours — ‘and let’s come up with the best one, the best idea, and then put all our resources into that and go.’ What are the odds? If this were science, what are the odds that that would bear a good result? Almost none.”

Almost none.

Yet we do that all the time? Why?

In a word: fear.

One of the biggest anti-innovation phobias we have is the fear of three magic words: “I don’t know.” Even though these three magic words can help us break free of the status quo, people fear saying them. Worse, people ridicule those who do dare to speak them. Yet they may be the most important words to help us actually make real progress in this world.

Levitt and Dubner demonstrate how we are usually over-confident about what we think we know. They recommend that a healthy dose of “I don’t know” can be of real benefit.

This is not new wisdom. When asked why the Oracle of Delphi declared him to be the wisest man in Greece, Socrates replied, “because I admit that I know nothing.”

Thomas Fuller, a 17th century English writer, noted that “A man is never nearer to ruin than when he trusts too much to his own wisdom.”

Ben Franklin, speaking about ratification of the newly drafted US Constitution, said “Most men, indeed… think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error … I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention…would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility.”

Robert J. Sternberg, a prominent researcher and theorist of human intelligence, wrote an entire book called Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid.

The musings of medieval barber Theodoric of York capture the stupidity of arrogance well:[1]

“You know, medicine is not an exact science, but we are learning all the time. Why, just fifty years ago, they thought a disease like your daughter's was caused by demonic possession or witchcraft [crowd chuckles]. But nowadays we know that Isabelle is suffering from an imbalance of bodily humors, perhaps caused by a toad or a small dwarf living in her stomach…”

If there’s a small dwarf in my stomach, I want it out.

There is a great saying that captures the danger of failing to admit our ignorance. “It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble. It's what we know that just ain't so.”[2]

“I don’t know” is liberating. You don’t have to know everything, all the time. None of us do, anyway. Hearing someone else say those words frees us to say them ourselves. Hearing us say them frees others to say them.

“I don’t know” is inspiring. Those words should earn respect. Keep in mind that those who act as if they know it all are generally thought of as being full of horse droppings by the rest of us.[3]

“I don’t know” is empowering. It allows us to challenge conventional wisdom, which, in turn, allows us to learn, grow, and get better at things.

“I don’t know” is enabling. It allows our ears to truly hear, without distorting what our customers, clients, stakeholders, and markets are telling us. It eliminates our inclination toward confirmation bias, because there is no “I know” to confirm.

“I don’t know” is necessary. It allows organizations to develop and maintain powerful innovation engines.



[1] You can see Steve Martin perform his Theodoric brilliance online at

[2] This aphorism has been variously attributed to Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Josh Billings, and I really don’t know which one came up with it. At some point, I’m sure the internet will start saying that it came from a slew of others as well. I don’t know the truth of who expressed it first, but I do know the truth of the saying itself.

[3] Unfortunately, this is not always true, especially if they speak their horse pucks with enough confidence. Still, being a “know-it-all” is never a compliment.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page