A great passage from Jeffrey Fox’s best selling first book How to Become CEO has stuck with me over the years. Fox recounted how one of the U.S. automakers, desperate to improve gas mileage during the 1970s energy crisis, called on its engineers to redesign its cars to be less heavy, improving gas mileage. But veteran engineers insisted that just couldn’t be done. Doing so, they said, would be unsafe, impractical and impossible. They were wrong.
The automaker brought in younger, recent engineering grads with less experience, who proceeded to shed hundreds of pounds off the cars with no adverse safety impact. The new engineers were successful because they were not constrained by preconceptions; they didn’t “know enough” to conclude the task was impossible!
This story is a great example of what my business friend and colleague Neil Baron calls “the curse of too much knowledge.”
Neil Baron is managing director of Baron Strategic Partners, a business management consulting firm with experience in developing value propositions. I have known Neil for a few years now and have enjoyed many of his presentations at past ProductCamp Boston and Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) events.
Recently, Neil led a Creating Compelling Value Propositions workshop, for which Tench Forbes wrote up a great summary for the BPMA website. During that workshop, Neil said the ‘curse of too much knowledge’ is a major inhibitor to successfully creating a value prop that resonates with prospective customers. From the BPMA summary:
A big challenge is that we assume that our customers know as much as we do about the product. Our own knowledge gets in the way. Companies have an advanced understanding of the technology because they live with it every day. Customers, even those with PhDs, are not at the same level of expertise. This makes it hard for vendors to relate to their customers. It is nobody’s fault. It is just how our brains are wired.
Neil then offers a solution which happens to coincide very closely with how that US automaker lightened the weight of their cars:
Often the problem of too much knowledge can best be addressed by bringing in an someone who does not have the same level of knowledge as your team. They can come from either from another part of your organization or be a true outsider. The key is that they have the ability to question your assumptions about your product and your customer. (emphasis added)
This is very similar to advice from Michael Roberto’s book Know What You Don’t Know (a longtime favorite of mine that I happened to recently turn Neil on to as well!). In his book, Michael Roberto agrees with Neil that managers need to “seek out the youngest and the brightest inside and outside the organization” to “gain access to a different worldview” about your products and markets. And these two additional suggestions to get unfiltered points of view appear particularly relevant to breaking the curse of too much knowledge:
- Go to the periphery. Communicate with co-workers in distant geographic regions, units exploring new technology and groups or ventures outside of the firm’s core market. Focus on the disconnects between what people living your products every day versus the “periphery” of the business.
- Talk to the “nons”, as in speaking with non-customers, non-employees and non-suppliers; those who do not interact with the company, whether for a particular reason (why?) or simply being unaware of your organization. What are their reactions to your product and value prop? Do they “get it” and express some interest in it? If not, why not?
Neil Baron offers a very thorough process in his value proposition workshop to overcome the curse of too much knowledge using tools and techniques based on cutting-edge brain science from MIT. Similarly, Michael Roberto’s book also addresses the root causes of barriers to getting fresh, unvarnished perspectives on products and customers, some of which also involve brain science (confirmation bias) and others rooted in the unfortunate reality of “palace politics” (pressure to conform; advocating for one’s own best interests).
A clear first step forward is to simply accept the paradoxical notion that we as product marketers and product managers just might not “know what we don’t know,” while at the same time “knowing too much”!
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