get outside your box

Insultants not Consultants: Balancing Mastery and Questioning

don't be afraid to ask dumb questions

“The best servants of the people, like the best valets, must whisper unpleasant truths in the master’s ear. It is the court fool, not the foolish courtier, whom the king can least afford to lose.” – Walter Lippmann

Though people/clients see me as a Consultant, I’ve never really liked the label of Consultant and don’t really consider myself one because I don’t specialize. I’m more of an ‘Insultant in Residence’, not a Consultant.

The first time I ever heard of the term Insultant was in the book ‘Breakthrough Company‘ by Keith McFarland where he describes an Insultant as:

Someone willing to ask the tough questions that cause a company to think critically about it’s fundamental assumptions.

He then goes on to say that:

The value of Insultants is that they will go to great lengths to get their companies to reevaluate a position or adapt to a changing environment.

Sounds right to me.

No doubt Consultants can provide you with this type of attitude too but that is rarely the case. I know a ton of Consultants and what they do provide is answers, not questions.

They tell me they get paid to provide guidance and answers, not to come up with questions that make people uncomfortable.


Here’s what I think:

Controversial thinking is sound thinking

Common sense thinking is to take ‘experience-based shortcuts’ and let emotions color your reality. Sound thinking is to question the fundamental assumptions of the current reality.

How much expertise is needed to question the current reality? None. And that’s the problem. Nobody can imagine themselves not having expertise because it makes them look dumb.

But here’s the kicker:

The more you know, the less you’ll consider

Conception is a matter of connection. New connections bring new ideas, new angles, new approaches to solving problems. And if we make the same predictable connections as everyone else (born out of expertise), we’ll never make new connections that lead to an alternative way to solve problems.

Deep expertise is a two sided sword because you’ll rely on experience (autopilot) to solve problems but will have a hard time seeing connections with topics outside your experience.

In knowing and practicing something specific, we become ignorant to everything else.

get outside your box

This is what happens when we become experts. We only listen to our own voice.

And as Jeffrey Phillips points out:

Perhaps one of the most significant barriers to innovation is what we think we know, or “facts” that we are confident are correct.  As several cognitive experts have demonstrated, the more you know about a topic, the more difficult it becomes to imagine not knowing what you know.  In other words, the very knowledge and expertise that you have in a field often makes it difficult to create something radically new and different.

The problem is that experts know they’re supposed to supply answers, not more questions. And people, love simple answers, which they’ll pay handsomely for.

Reinvention is happening all the time. Yet, the Curse of Knowledge, prevails. This is where Insultants come in.

The value of Insultants

Objectivity. An outsider point of view. The hidden truth. This is what an Insultant brings to the table.

In the fast paced world we live in somebody somewhere has to be asking the questions nobody thinks of asking, the questions that are outside the jar. The Dumb Questions:

Dumb questions are very important, especially for innovation.  Why? (no pun intended)  Because dumb questions challenge the status quo.  Dumb questions test basic, tacit assumptions.  Dumb questions make us stop and think about fundamental truths.  Dumb questions get to the core.

If we’re completely honest with ourselves and get out of our own way, asking questions should be second nature.

Now you might imagine that Insultants are annoying people. For people who don’t want to see the other side of the coin, yes. We are annoying. But not with that intent in mind, but to challenge the status-quo by asking the right questions. To break the pattern. To find the hidden truth beyond the known surface.

Innovation is Beginner’s Luck

Innovation Agency Maddock Douglas understands and knows how to use Insultants to infuse innovation. Watch this webinar:

“Why Innovation is Beginner’s Luck” webinar from Maddock Douglas, Inc. on Vimeo.

To infuse innovation, Maddock Douglas advises us to:

  • Hire people from outside your industry.
  • Swap jobs.
  • Listen to the kids.
  • Infuse outside experts everywhere.

Sounds just right!

Balancing Mastery and Questioning

Don’t get me wrong, expertise is needed. But more importantly, there needs to be balance; a combination of mastery and questioning. Question your own mastery, how about that?

As Roger Martin wrote in The Design of Business:

Mastery without originality becomes rote. The master who never tries to think in novel ways keeps seeing the thing the same way. In this manner, mastery without originality becomes a cul-de-sac. By the same token, originality without mastery is flaky, if not entirely random. The power is in the combination.

The bottom line is, Insultants inspire and empower curiosity. And because what is true today might not be true tomorrow, this is the code of conduct we Insultants follow. Bucking the system is our hobby 🙂

You want to break patterns and create new ones? Come get some.

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