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What if I get it wrong?

I was reminded over the Christmas holiday of the story – no doubt apocryphal, but interesting nonetheless – of the young girl whose class was asked by her teacher to draw a picture. When the teacher asked her what she had decided to draw, she replied that she would draw a picture of God. “That’s interesting” replied her teacher – great response – good curiosity. However, he continued, “but no one knows what God looks like!” Ah, there’s always a but. Undeterred, the girl responded, “Well they soon will!”. Bravo!

A fun story, yes, but also insightful.

First, it celebrates the curiosity, and wonder and courage of children. Their ability to imagine and embrace challenge is unhindered by the “but” which so quickly falls on the lips of her teacher. She had no knowledge of the iconoclast controversy of the 8th Century, or other theological and metaphysical niceties, to stand in her way. She was captivated by an idea which she wanted to explore wherever it might take her.

Secondly, it contrasts the initial response of the teacher – a celebration of her curiosity – with his immediate caution of its impossibility.

Of course, he was ‘correct’. His ‘superior’ knowledge enabled him to introduce theories and evidence to at least constrain the endeavour, if not to demonstrate its hopelessness.

And there is the rub. The journey of people along the knowledge spectrum confers substantial benefits and gifts. But sometimes it can be accompanied by the unintended consequence that it constrains our willingness to explore, to play with ideas, to imagine the unimaginable, to ask the unaskable.

On occasion, the acquisition of knowledge can lead to the false assumption of a duality – that there is a definite right and wrong (not intended here in the moral sense but in the epistemological). A consequence is that all too easily human caution takes over and we become dominated by the thought “what if I get it wrong?”.

Of course, if we stop for long enough to reflect, we recognise that in our increasingly VUCA landscape, the presence of uncertainty and ambiguity clouds, if not contradicts, this duality. Not only does this invite us to explore the boundaries of conventional thinking, but it also compels us to break the rules.

Which is not to suggest for a moment that the rules are unimportant. This is not a call to anarchy – rather a recognition that innovation and creativity require the informed and courageous exploration of the boundaries of convention and, on occasion, the crossing of those boundaries. It could be argued that a sophisticated understanding of the rules enables us to make more nuanced judgements on how and when to break them.

Which suggests that curiosity is not enough to drive good innovation. It is the necessary starting point, but it must be accompanied by careful reflection through which conventional wisdom is brought into a creative dialectic with the creative process. Only then can our innovation be truly intentional and fruitful.

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