August 19, 2009

The Curse of Knowledge

Is knowledge ever dangerous? Can knowledge actually undermine our ability to communicate?

Adam and Eve, who famously ate from the Tree of Knowledge and suffered Jehovah's wrath would certainly say so. A little more recently, in their 2007 book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath explain the basic problem of knowledge:

Folks with a deep knowledge about a topic often assume others have that same knowledge.

This simple and rather obvious point often leads to major missteps. As Scott Anthony explains in his Harvard Business Blog Article:

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.