How to best work your way into a new topic - Part 1

How to best work your way into a new topic - Part 1

Innovation Method
Published On:
May 22, 2023

As we enter the Sixth Wave of disruptive technological innovation, we will all come sooner or later into contact with confusing new topic fields often summed up by a hot buzzword or abbreviation. In recent weeks, I started several projects in topic areas that have largely been new to me (and most members of innovation teams that I was working with as a facilitator), such as blockchain, crypto, the Metaverse, NFTs, P2E, D2C, among others. How can you quickly yet effectively work your way into a new topic? Allow me to share with you some of the knowledge acquisition strategies and tools I use and ask innovation teams to apply when I guide them through a new project topic. (These are also fundamental Xploration tools in our X-IDEA Innovation Toolbox).

1. Clarify motivations and objectives upfront.

First, prime your mind for a new learning journey by asking yourself: Why do you want to learn about a specific new topic or domain? What exactly do you want to achieve? And how can we best express our challenge in a simple “How to”-statement? Making your motivations and objectives clear upfront helps open your mind and focus your investigation.

Currently, I guide two teams through an innovation project posed by a regional brand agency on how brands can use NFTs to grow their business. The objective of the investigation is to understand more about NFTs and how consumer brands can apply these to build their brands, accelerate business growth, create communities, and drive long-term engagement and loyalty. We summed up the essence of our Initial Challenge in the sentence: “How to make brands grow with NFTs?”  

2. List your knowledge.

Suppose you are not entirely ignorant about new technologies and business trends. In that case, you might have already picked up some news and have acquired some rudimentary knowledge about the new topic you want to investigate. As such, list anything you already know about the subject in what we call a Knowledge List. Thereby, it makes sense to structure the knowledge into different subordinated categories. Moreover, document your sources by listing the related books, articles, URLs, et cetera to each item in your Knowledge List.

In the NFT project case example, the teams use categories such as NFT Basics, NFT Applications, NFT Marketplace, Regulations, Consumer Branding, Square 44 & Co. (to capture information related to the agency and its branded clients), and Others.

3. Browse widely to expand your initial knowledge

“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” noted the US futurist John Naisbitt. The next step you need to take is to widely explore your topic area to add more points to your Knowledge List in a “quick and dirty” way. Here, focus first on listing as many knowledge bullets as possible under the various knowledge categories without judging the information.

One aspect that you should aim to understand here is the starting point and historical evolution of the new topic area. For example, the first NFT named Terra Nullius was created in August 2015, and the article The Definitive Timeline of Early NFTs on Ethereum describes the early historical development of NFTs.

4. Compile a glossary related to the topic.

By now, many of you might wonder what the heck is an NFT — and rightfully complain that I haven’t explained the term yet. That’s what step 4 in our topical knowledge acquisition journey is all about.

“Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking.”

— Warren Buffett

Whenever you begin exploring a new topic area, you inevitably will encounter a lot of new terms and appreciations that are entirely new to you but standard jargon used by more experienced players in the domain. To quickly cut through the word clutter, you need to begin compiling a glossary listing all new domain words that are foreign to you but common in the domain, and then decode what each word means in real terms. Add any new, unfamiliar term and its clear text meaning to your glossary as you keep on exploring the topic. At the end of your glossary, also maintain a list of all abbreviations commonly used in the topic domain, and note down the full name.

So, what’s an NFT? And what does the abbreviation stand for? According to Wikipedia, a non-fungible token (NFT) is a non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain, a form of digital ledger, that can be sold and traded.

When you go down the rabbit hole to enter the wonderland of NFT, you will come across many strange new words like minting (= the process by which an NFT asset becomes part of the blockchain as a token that cannot be altered) or gas fees (= transaction fees paid by NFT creators and buyers to compensate for the computational resources used to execute transactions on the blockchain).

5. List everything that you don’t yet know

“To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge,” noted the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. As such, the next thing that you need to do is to systematically become aware of all those things that you don’t know about your topic but would want to know. List each identified knowledge gap as a numbered bullet in an Un-Knowledge List so that you can deal with it later while exploring the topic.

For example, some of the Un-Knowledge points listed by the NFT project teams included questions such as:

  • What are the key arguments that opponents of NFT use to critique the technology?
  • What are security issues related to NFTs (and blockchain), if any?
  • What are possible ways to misuse NFTs?
  • What are the detailed steps that I need to take to purchase NFTs, then store them, and finally sell them again?
  • What are other applications for NFTs beyond art?
  • What are the possible applications of NFTs in the real world?
  • What might regulators plan to do to “rule in” this “Wild West”-like market space?
  • What are tax implications related to NFT transactions? What jurisdiction is linked to possible tax payments associated with NFTs?

6. Infosourcing: Close identified knowledge gaps

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored,” said the English novelist Aldous Huxley. At some point during your topic exploration, set some time aside to close all identified knowledge gaps (Infosourcing). If you want to conquer a new domain as a team, you can assign the job to look up information related to a listed un-knowledge point to different team members. In most cases, Infosourcing means doing secondary research to find the sought-after information in books, research papers, websites. However, at times, you might also need to do primary research (e.g., conducting expert interviews or doing surveys sent to critical stakeholders closely related to a particular topic or project). Of course, add any meaningful newly sourced information to your Knowledge List.

Interim conclusion: Open your mind to many things indeed

“Men who are lovers of wisdom must be acquainted with very many things indeed,“ noted Heraclitus. In the 2020s, the world in general and business in particular are changing exponentially and at an accelerating pace. To keep up with new technological concepts and evolving know-how domains, we must be open to learning about many new things in this decade. While it’s not necessarily fun, progressing in a structured way while working your way in a foreign new topic domain allows you to acquire new knowledge and know-how quicker and more effectively. Today, we discussed the first five steps of working your way into a new knowledge area: Clarifying objectives and motivations upfront. Listing your knowledge. Browsing widely. Creating a glossary. And listing your un-knowledge. Come back in two weeks for part 2, when I will suggest the six more steps towards a quick and effective knowledge acquisition journey.

  • Would you like to learn more about X-IDEA, the innovation process method of Thinkergy that I describe as “Design Thinking with additional features and less bugs”?
  • Would you like to learn more about how to do Xploration (and use the related tools) in an X-IDEA training workshop (which we offer both online and, preferably, face-to-face)?

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is going to be co-published in a shortened version in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.

Credits: Title photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash