Beware “The Curse of Too Much Knowledge”

Note: This article, originally posted on July 29, 2014, was updated and rewritten on January 18, 2021.

A great passage from How to Become CEO, Jeffrey Fox’s first business bestseller, has stuck with me over the years:

One of the leading US automakers, desperate to improve gas mileage during the 1970’s energy crisis, called for its engineers to redesign its cars to be less heavy. But veteran engineers insisted that just couldn’t be done. Reducing the weight of cars, they said, would be unsafe, impractical and just plain impossible. Of course, they were wrong.

The automaker then brought in recent engineering grads, who quickly proceeded to shed hundreds of pounds off the cars with no adverse impact. The new engineers were successful because they were not constrained by preconceptions from years – even decades! – of expertise. In other words, they didn’t “know enough” to conclude the task had to be impossible! 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (classic 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film)

In other words, don’t be this guy.

This story is a great example of what my friend and marketing colleague Neil Baron, managing director of Baron Strategic Partners, calls “The Curse of Too Much Knowledge” – an all too common phenomenon among innovative companies.

As Neil has emphasized in his value proposition workshops and marketing articles for Fast Company [ 1 ] [ 2 ], Neil warns The Curse of Too Much Knowledge often results in off-the-mark value propositions and product messaging that fail to resonate with prospective customers:

The very expertise that enables companies to develop breakthrough products and services can undermine their ability to sell and market them. Our own knowledge gets in the way.

The benefit to the customer is considered intuitively obvious and it is assumed that the customer will know why the innovation will help them. This can make it hard for vendors to relate to their customers effectively.

Neil explains the primary root cause of The Curse of Too Much Knowledge is an abundance of subject matter expertise (SME) alongside a shortage of the skills essential to successfully commercialize a breakthrough innovation:

Product knowledge is [often] the most important  job requirement. However, having an experienced product expert lead your commercialization effort almost ensures that you will be cursed by the Curse of Too Much Knowledge.

Instead, companies should strive to find people to lead their commercialization effort who have successful product launch experience or a proven track record communicating complex ideas [and] have the ability to question your assumptions about your product and your customer. 

Here are three additional suggestions to help “reverse the curse” of too much knowledge:

      • Go to the periphery. In addition to existing customers, communicate with co-workers in different departments, distant geographic regions, business units exploring new technology and others who are not personally “invested” in the technology. Discover the disconnects between SMEs living your products every day and 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 value proposition? Do they “get it” and express some interest in it? If not, why not?
      • Engage your prospective customer so they say to you, “Tell me more.” This is critical. Your product’s exceptional features are only relevant to your customer to the extent that they deliver new business-building, problem-solving benefits. That means your first responsibility as a marketer – or a seller – is to lead with those benefits (the “what” and “why” of your product) and not your product’s features. Your second responsibility is to be ready with succinct, compelling details – when asked by your prospective customer (the “how”). Think of these two responsibilities as your fastball and curve ball.

        In his breakthrough original Solution Selling book, Michael Bosworth wrote that the best salespeople “keep all their product’s amazing features in their pockets [until the right time] – because they don’t use their product to sell – they use their product to prove.” He also added this:

        If you see your competitors [setting up a slide presentation] to [expound upon] the history of their company and their product’s or service’s amazing features and advantages, smile to yourself. They will be easy for you to beat. They don’t know how to create a buyer.

        Using Michael Bosworth’s same yardstick, if a marketer begins any given product messaging effort by deep-diving into a discourse on features instead of customer wants and needs, that’s a red flag suggesting they don’t know how to create a marketing lead – effectively or at scale.

    Simply put, The Curse of Too Much Knowledge is the malady of being so knowledgeable, so brilliant about something, that you can’t explain it simply and effectively. Organizations that understand the risks and implications of The Curse of Too Much Knowledge are much more likely to actively avoid it all together, while effectively marketing and selling their technology and other innovative products.

    If you liked this article, you may also like:

    Marketers: What’s Your Fastball? What’s Your Curve Ball?

    “Begin with the Beginning in Mind” for Content Creation

    Why the Best Product Marketers Are “Intelligently Disobedient”

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