Guest Post by Bob Deasy, CIO, Lead I.T. Consulting
The phrase “curse of knowledge” first appeared a 1989 paper titled “The Curse of Knowledge in Economic Settings: An Experimental Analysis,” which introduced the concept that “better informed agents are unable to ignore private information even when it is in their best interests to do so; more information is not always better.” While most of us assume that experts are the best people to turn to for new ideas, the truth is that experts are often less able to innovate than greenhorns. For instance, if your IT consultant thinks along the exact same lines as you, it’s difficult to find new ways of doing things.
Although this concept is counterintuitive at first, it makes sense upon consideration of the knowledge-building process. Every field has its own lingo and agreed-upon principles. These guidelines help organize and canonize information that would otherwise be difficult to remember. To gain entry into upper academic echelons and posh corner offices, a person must learn how to follow the appropriate industry rules. IT consultants, for instance, often have a set of IT management rules, such as the ITIL guidelines, practically engrained on their brains, so they may not see areas that are best served by alternative approaches.
The more you know, the harder it is to get out of the box of agreed-upon industry rules that you’ve built around yourself. The mind of an expert can easily settle into a certain pattern or rut, simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” When entire technology consulting firms are operating from the same handbook, it’s difficult to achieve true innovation. Intel co-founder Andrew S. Grove put it this way: “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” As we get to know a topic better, it is harder for us to see it in creative, new ways. Understanding the “rules” of knowledge limits our ability to bend or break them.
Sophisticated but ultimately useless software is one example of how the curse of knowledge thwarts IT innovation. Engineers, in their insulated community, can’t help but design software for other engineers. Too often, the product of their efforts is packaged well and marketed widely but ultimately impractical or downright useless for the average company.
Brothers Chip and Dan Heath explore how to evade the curse of knowledge in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Come Unstuck. Below, we explore a few of these suggestions through an IT management perspective. IT consultants and mangers can cultivate innovation by following these tips:
1. Build a team with a variety of skills.
Steve Jobs took this approach to heart when he created the Pixar building, which was designed to force accountants, animators and all other niche experts to interact in the building’s sole set of bathrooms. As Jobs said, “Technology alone is not enough – it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” When an IT consultant, CFIO or other IT management guru is forced to work with complete novices, new ways of thinking naturally open up. Total beginners will likely have unique knowledge in other areas that can be applied to IT management in unique, groundbreaking ways.
2. Avoid jargon; seek teaching opportunities.
Explaining the basics can help experts think about their understanding in a new light, fostering innovation. In her book Innovation Killer, Cynthia Barton Rabe tells of a colleague at Eveready who came to the flashlight business with no preconceived notions of what did and did not work. At that time, all Eveready flashlights were red and utilitarian. Drawing from her years of experience in marketing and packaging at Ralston Purina, this flashlight newbie overhauled the Eveready line to include pink, green and baby blue torches – colors that would be more likely to attract female shoppers. Thus, the floundering flashlight business was revived.
Rabe concludes that such “zero gravity thinkers,” as she calls them, fuel innovation by asking very basic questions that force experts to step back into a beginner’s mindset. Because going back to the basics can seem like backtracking to those who are very familiar with specialized knowledge, it’s not unusual for frustration to run high when zero gravity thinkers are on the scene. However, if a team can work through this irritation, innovation soon follows.
3. Hire “Renaissance thinker” consultants.
Ms. Rabe concedes that outside parties, such as IT consultants, can serve as zero gravity thinkers, assuming they have a broad range of knowledge. If your IT consultant’s only employment has been through technology consulting firms, he or she will not be as likely to innovate. In contrast, an IT consultant who came to the field as a second career will be able to see wholly new approaches.