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On the need for Naïve Experts

To ensure diversity of thinking as well as foster strategic alignment, most teams tap into different talent from across the organization and from their key strategic partners for co-creation sessions. It isn’t always obvious that you should also consider inviting a Naïve Expert.

Today’s more complex and competitive world requires not only the depth of expertise that people from different functions of your organization bring but also the unaffected curiosity that facilitates intrepid questioning and audacious ideas.

Remember the feeling when you had just started your role? You didn’t know the company and brand so well, but you had a wealth of knowledge behind you.

As you immersed in your role, at some point, you stopped and asked: “Hey, why are we doing this? I’ve experienced a similar issue in a different context before, and we learned that we doing X, instead of Y can lead to a better result…”. This is the perspective you’re after!

To ensure you have this perspective at your co-creation session means you’ll need to invite someone to play the role of the Naïve Expert.

How can you be “Naïve” and “Expert” at the same time?

The basic principle of a Naïve Expert is they can draw on past experience in an adjacent (but not identical) company/industry and apply that to the context of your company/industry.

Let’s say that you’re looking for a Naïve Expert for a discussion in the Insurance sector in Singapore. You could look for someone who worked at L’Oréal Professional.

What would make them a good Naïve Expert?

While they are quite naïve of the ins and outs of the insurance industry, they are experts in working through distributors/re-sellers to reach each individual hairdresser.

Putting someone in this context forces them to draw parallels, rather than merely drawing on Insurance industry experience, enabling a reframe of the opportunity in a stronger, bolder way. You may even learn about solutions or approaches proven in the hair care context (for example, when dealing with incentives for distributors) but have never been applied to Insurance agents. This gives you an opportunity to create something genuinely new and fresh for the Insurance category.

So, now that we understand what a Naïve Expert is and how they can bring value, let’s turn to how to go about finding and setting yourself up in the best way to ensure you get the most out of this talented individual!

The Profile

1. EXPERIENCE:  Someone who comes from a context that has a strong parallel to the industry or the situation you are facing, and has ideally succeeded in it

  1. For the Insurance example, it was: “I work in an intermediated industry where I don’t get to interact with the final client directly”

  2. If you’re in banking, consider bringing in someone from a Michelin Star restaurant, because: “I work in a service industry that is burdened with labour costs and undifferentiated customer service levels.

2. PERSONALITY: A great Naïve Expert can make your session a powerful experience, a bad one can either not be seen or heard during the session, or can become a tyrant in your session.  You’d want someone spontaneous, can think on their feet, comfortable speaking up in a group setting with perfect strangers, and isn’t easily intimidated. Someone who can contribute and won’t simply take over, can listen and participate without telling the team what to do. This is tough to objectively judge, so you’d do best to ask around a little, enquire with people who know the potential Naïve Expert you’re looking to recruit, to ensure that you find the right balance. 

The role

The role of the Naïve Expert is to help nudge and unlock, to help reframe and challenge what people take for granted. The solution needs to come from the team, not the Naïve Expert and they need to understand that from the start.

So your Naïve Expert should be asked to play a sort of “Agent Provocateur” role, ideally stepping in when the team is getting stuck, with either an example or a question, that can help them see different options or reflect on alternative courses of action, that enable a different outcome.

They are there to trigger, to spark, to inspire and ultimately (by doing this) help to reframe the perspective of the team. Doing this well is a careful balancing act that requires the Naïve Expert knowing when to lean on his experience and when to consider holding back from the depth of his inexperience.

The briefing

Once you have the right profile, you’re on the road to success! Now you need to make sure that you brief your Naïve Expert correctly, to inspire them to play their role well. You must brief them about what you expect from them and what they are going into.

What you expect from them is covered in the role we would like them to play. But when it comes to telling them about what they are going into, you should ensure that they know a little as is necessary.

Part art, part science, the easiest way to weigh up the information required is to consider what you’d give a senior stakeholder, minus the detailed numbers if applicable. You’d want to give them a broad overview of the issue and the underlying tensions, the specific aspects or dimensions that have driven your team to get “stuck”. Where are they stuck, what is holding them back? You’d need them to understand this at a high level only, without getting too detailed or you risk pulling them into the same mental framework as your team is in.

Importantly, you’ll need to keep in mind that your team is as bright as anyone else, or any other team. It’s not about that, it’s about how you’re looking at the problem. So the solution will come with the help of the Naïve Expert, only if and when they’re not as close to the problem as your own team, otherwise they become “contaminated” and their role becomes entirely wasted.

What a Naïve Expert can & can’t do

When considering your challenge, you would do well to realise that your Naïve Expert is an ally in your quest for a solution. Whilst they can’t give you the answer, there’s no reason why you can’t share only some of the details about things that are important in understanding why you are where you are.

Sometimes, companies might get stuck because of something you might call a “taboo”. It could be lack of willingness to invest on Capital Expenditure, or to acquire a competitor, or consider changing internal rules, or working differently across functions… the examples are endless and the taboo itself could be something major (like acquiring a competitor), or minor (like changing internal rules). Sharing this up front allows the Naïve expert to “selectively” bypass their “knowledge gap” and start considering ways around it, before you get to the session. Also consider that revealing it up front also takes a load of your chest and provides you a potential opportunity to glimpse one or more new possibilities, ahead of the session – further fuelling the possibility of successful resolution.

Importantly, remind yourself that a lasting solution does not (should not/cannot) come from the Naïve Expert, but from your team. Not only are they not as well versed in your category/business as your team, but they also have no long term vested interest – that sits with your internal team. A solution created by them is many times more likely to see the light of day than a solution “told to them” by a stranger who doesn’t “really know” their business.

Simple mistakes you can avoid

When bringing in Naïve Experts, there is sometimes a tendency to bring in a “veteran” from another industry, who can bring the “gravitas” of someone senior into your session. That is not, in itself, a bad thing – quite the opposite. You just need to watch out that the individual is really “balanced” and doesn’t go into either endless vague discourse or problem solving on behalf of the team.

Some individuals will display a very articulate speech but if you pay close attention, they keep their statements very high level and generic… in a way that they could be saying pretty much the same thing in a different setting and it would still make sense. Watch out, because this kind of participant will quickly “wear out” as the session progresses, and they risk failing to meaningful help the team make progress – because they’re too vague and “fluffy”.

Other types will be too focused on problem solving and tend to jump from the generic outside-in observation point where they started and (too) quickly jump to a solution which they believe to be the best solution after sliced bread was invented… and they will carry on to convince everyone of the merit of their solution, blocking and frustrating the team’s efforts to reach their own way out, based not just on Outside-in stimuli but also on their deep experience in the business.

The last mistake is very obvious, which would be when you fail to give the new participant in the session the right introduction and set the context correctly for the team. All kinds of things can happen. They might ignore the Naïve Expert, because they don’t really know who this is and exactly what their role is (so we might as well ignore what they have to say!). They might feel that this person doesn’t have the relevant expertise to be in the session, so once again they will tend to downplay what the contributions from your Naïve Expert. You need to ensure that everyone understands not only who the Naïve Expert is, but (importantly) the role that they have been asked to play in the session and why they can bring value when they don’t know the industry.


A Naïve Expert can be a very powerful ally, a formidable “tool” to help your team overcome the inertia brought about by the combination of in-depth expertise and data overload.

Finding the right person, briefing them correctly and setting them up at the start of your session, will make the difference between a very successful exercise and a frustrating useless waste of your and everyone’s time.

In today’s fast paced world, it often seems we don’t have time to pay attention to the details, but this is a case where clearly it pays off, to pay attention to the details!

Contact us to know more about how we use Naïve Experts in Controlled Disruption.


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