Mistake 11: Ignoring the “curse of knowledge”

Innovators, like entrepreneurs, are often more successful when they are young.  The reasons have more to do with naivety than vigor.  Many entrepreneurs and innovators look at market conditions and competitive threats in a very different light than do large corporations and incumbents.  That’s because larger firms and experts fall prey to “knowing” too much about their markets and customers.  This is the so-called “curse of knowledge“.

When clients ask us how much we know about their industry, I’m happy to tell them we don’t consider ourselves experts in any industry, and we consider that a benefit.  The more you know about an industry, a technology, a market, the more you think you know what “can” and “can’t” be done.  Those outside the market or industry or technology don’t know or don’t care about what you or other experts think, and are willing to attempt things that your experts will dismiss out of hand.  Do you think the people at the large music conglomerates ever worried about Apple distributing music?

What this means in practice

When it comes time to innovate in many organizations, an innovation team is formed, typically of people who know a lot about the company, the customers and the potential technologies.  Since they know a lot about these factors, they are experts.  The more they know, and the more certain they are of their knowledge, the more the curse of knowledge enters the discussion.  It can be difficult for experts to even consider avenues or alternatives that conflict with what they know to be true.  For example, when we worked with a health insurance firm, ideas were proposed that violated some industry regulations set forth by states and the federal government.  Most of the people on the innovation team rejected them because they were “illegal”.  Yet when we pointed out that regulations can be changed, and that the firm employed lobbyists to lobby for changes in regulations, the ideas suddenly didn’t seem all that strange.  The team’s expertise and knowledge became a barrier, not an accelerator.

Helpful and hurtful

Deep expertise is helpful when the ideas necessary are closely aligned with what the firm already does, already accepts or permits.  Expertise can be a significant barrier when the ideas necessary depart from existing expertise, or when ideas explore adjacent markets or spaces or technologies that have been “off limits” or unattainable.  When you think about structuring your team, consider how open minded and flexible your experts are.

Obviously you need a team that understands your business, your markets and technologies, but you also need a team willing to look at an opportunity with fresh perspectives.  You have several choices when structuring your team:

  1. Bring an outsider who asks the questions that no one on the team will ask
  2. Have a team member play the “corporate jester”, whose intentional role is to question conventional wisdom
  3. Train the entire team in creativity techniques and alternative resolution skills

It may be necessary to pursue all three avenues simultaneously to get the breadth of thinking and creativity you need.  What you can’t afford is to close off new opportunities, new markets or channels or business models simply because your internal experts “know” that you “can’t” do something.  If thousands of years of history teach us anything, it’s that if there is a will, there is a way.  Your experts may close the door to possibilities, but that doesn’t mean the door is closed to others.


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