By annie shum | July 24, 2009
Chip and Dan Heath described the curse of knowledge nicely in their 2007 book Made to Stick (highly recommended to all innovators). The basic problem: people who have deep knowledge about a topic sometimes assume other people have that same knowledge. That can lead to major missteps.
The brothers Heath bring this to life by describing a simple experiment run by a Stanford doctoral candidate in the early 1990s. The researcher gave subjects a list of popular songs like “Happy Birthday” and asked them to tap those songs out on a table. Another person had to guess the songs. The researcher asked the “tapper” to predict the percent of songs the “listener” would guess correctly.
The tappers — who could hear the song in their heads as they tapped — assumed that people would get 50 percent right. They actually got 2.5 percent right.
What does this mean for innovation? Managers who have spent their entire lives working in an industry often suffer from the curse of knowledge. They assume customers know more than they do. This curse can blind managers to opportunities and threats. During my meeting at Gillette, one group member described how “of course” the last place you should shave is around your mouth. As I tend to shave my chin last, I asked him why. “Well, that part of the face has the most nerve endings,” he explained. “So you need to give more time for your shave prep [lotion or gel] to work.”
As that was news to me, I wondered if I was alone in my naivety. So I launched a quick survey. Twitter and Innosight friends and family produced about 100 responses in 24 hours. Turns out only about 30 percent of people claim to shave around the mouth last (the neck was the most popular choice). Further, only about 25 percent of the people who shave around the mouth last said they did so in order to let their shave prep work or because the area is sensitive. Other answers (it was an open-ended question) ranged widely, with my favorite answer being, “Best for last?”
How do you break free from the curse of knowledge? Spending a lot of time with customers helps. The more you listen to what the customer says and doesn’t say, the more you can make sure that your intuition is attuned to the customer’s knowledge base. Recognizing the curse helps as well. Make a regular habit of asking questions such as, “Is this our view, or the view of our target customer?”
Finally, bring in outside voices who can ask the innocent questions that can expose the curse of knowledge. The 2004 Boston Red Sox showed how curses can in fact be broken. Don’t let your own knowledge blind you to threats and opportunities.
by Scott Anthony, July 23, 2009, Harvard Business Publishing