Tao Te Ching: “The more you know, the less you understand.”

There are many times that the more I learn something, the more I’m constrained by my knowledge and assumptions, resulting in my being less creative. This contradicts the conventional wisdom concerning expertise.

People typically hire a consultant because they lack knowledge or experience in the problem domain, and they think that a consultant will fill that gap. Consultants are often called experts, and we may even begin to think of ourselves as such. We think we should have all the answers, or at least we should know more about the subject than our clients.

While I was making breakfast this morning, my wife and I were discussing our plans for the day. I told her that I had no idea what I was going to write about for TechRepublic this week. She said, “Write about how the more you learn something, the more you’re constrained by your own knowledge and assumptions, and the less creative you are.” That made me go “Hmm” because it contradicts the conventional wisdom concerning expertise.

For instance, in a recent article on [GAS], I pointed out e-mail’s flaws, and I called for something better. Nathaniel Borenstein, one of the designers of the MIME protocol, responded in the comments section and called my argument naive. He said that given the “underlying constraints” of the “key design points” of e-mail, some of the problems I discussed would be inevitable in any system. He’s right, but in my naiveté, I question those “key design points” — at least for some types of communication for which e-mail is being used today.

Sometimes the real value of bringing in an outside IT consultant is the fresh perspective that a new pair of eyes brings to the problem. Not knowing all of the assumed constraints under which the project design has been struggling allows the consultant to ask naive questions and to think outside the box. It’s not what you know but rather what you don’t presume to know.

How often have you helped your clients by asking stupid questions?