Breaking the “Curse of Too Much Knowledge”

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. But veteran engineers insisted that just couldn’t be done. Doing so, they said, would be unsafe, impractical and impossible. Of course, they were wrong.

The automaker brought in 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!

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

At his recent Creating Compelling Value Propositions workshop, Neil said the ‘curse of too much knowledge’ is a major inhibitor to successfully creating a value prop that resonates with prospective customers:

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… 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:

  • Seek-out-unfiltered-information-go-out-to-peripheryGo 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”!

If you liked this article, you may also like:

“Collective-We” Firms Eat “Exclusive-We” Competitors for Lunch (and How to Become One)

Product Managers & Marketers Should be “Intelligently Disobedient”

Be a Dogged (not Dog!) Product Manager

 

How KM & Enterprise Search Help Collective-We Firms Eat Exclusive-We Competitors for Lunch

Poorly managed organizations are likely to function – or, I should say, malfunction – with frequent use of a divisive verbal tactic called the exclusive “we”. I suspect most business people can recall being on the receiving end of remark like this:

We don’t do things that way here.”
“Will you stop asking so many questions? We don’t tolerate ‘fishing expeditions’ around here!”

“I’ve been saying ‘We don’t do things that way’ so long, I’ve forgotten what we DO do.”
Image by HikingArtist.com (CC)

The speaker is clearly excluding the person being addressed from the pronoun “we” to stifle communication. This kind of non-communication is also a sign of a dysfunctional exclusive-we culture, in which information sharing is discouraged in favor of information hoarding. Exclusive-we organizations will struggle to so much as acknowledge business problems before they become undeniable crises, leaving managers in constant ‘fire-fighting’ mode. Hardly a recipe for business success.

Successful companies use the word “we” a lot, too – but in an opposite, winning manner:

“What should we be doing that we aren’t doing now?”
“These questions are important. We need to be able to answer them.”

What a difference! This time the speaker is invoking the collective “we” to equally include the person being addressed along with everyone else in the room, as well as everyone throughout the entire organization.

Leaders in highly successful organizations naturally speak and act from a collective-we perspective. Even better, they build a collective-we culture, actively encouraging and supporting information sharing and collaboration. Doing so transforms a company’s collective-we into a powerful company asset capable not only of quickly solving problems, but also proactively finding them – and, in the process, leaving the exclusive-we competitors in the dust.

Know What You Don't Know by Michael RobertoMichael Roberto, a leading business leadership authority whose excellent book Know What You Don’t Know I have written about previously, strongly urges organizations to develop problem finding skills. Roberto recently commented about new technologies that enable internal crowdsourcing, aka the collective-we:

Crowd sourcing can work inside of a company too, and we’re seeing more and more companies doing that; particularly global companies that have people spread out around the world. They’re using [new] tools to get people sharing [information] across different silos.

Eliminating information silos is a key prerequisite to becoming a collective-we organization capable of effective problem finding. In an interview with management consulting firm Linkage, Michael Roberto shared some valuable insights into the three major ways unified enterprise information management enables the organization’s collective-we:

Organizations must frankly answer, “Why did we fail?”

Take a look at a failure that took place in the organization. Ask yourself, “Could we have seen it coming… were there some signals we missed? Why did we miss them?”

Organizations that have undertaken such “candid self-assessment” have discovered that they had been acting based on an incomplete informational picture that was indeed missing critical business signals. Such signals reside within trends in KPIs and metrics drawn from data warehouses and databases, as well as unstructured content (free-flowing text residing in document repositories, SharePoint, wikis, file servers and external websites).

Boil large quantities of information down to what really matters.

[In the] old-school way, you built a big report, you put it in a binder and it collected dust… the answer is not a big report. The [real] answer is three bullets… the couple of takeaways – and technology can play a role in helping to share those. But the most important thing is boiling it down… If you (have) a 100-page report… no one is going to read it.

Good organizations are already adept at boiling down large volumes of data into KPIs that can be trended over time, but that’s not enough. It is also important to mine “those key takeaways” from every “100-page report no one is going to read” through natural language processing (NLP) and text analytics, including extraction of entities (names, products, places), key phrase extraction, entity normalization, content classification and more.

It’s also important to note a unified knowledge management (KM)/enterprise information management (EIM) system will also utilize advanced enterprise search to present the most relevant information instead of a long laundry list of documents to sort through. As a result, “those key takeaways” from every “100-page report no one is going to read” will be discovered by users whenever they are needed to help directly address any given matter at hand.

In a real world example, a level 1 IT support rep for a leading financial services firm resolved a serious enterprise application failure incident with no known workaround in the first call. The company’s service knowledge management solution surfaced an ideal resolution buried within a 100-plus page application development transitional document, written by one of the original programmers located in India.

Few people probably ever read the entire document, or even knew it existed; and yet, the company’s unified information architecture empowered the company’s collective-we from halfway around the world to solve a serious problem, by presenting that document when it was needed.

“You can’t chase down everything”… so let KM/EIM technology chase it down for you.

You can’t chase down everything [yourself]. I think part of the job of the leader is to be able to prioritize… [and] recognize that you have talent around you that can help you.

The same financial services firm also integrated key information about their own employees, particularly areas of subject matter expertise and current areas of research. Through such “expert finder” capabilities, a worker within a global organization can find and reach out to fellow co-workers for help down the hall or anywhere in the world – once again, empowering the organization’s collective-we to cross international boundaries.

A collective-we organization fully leverages the power of the collective intelligence, the collective knowledge of the entire organization to find business problems before they become serious issues, as well as seize new business opportunities before the competition even knows they exist.

“Something is not Right!” Don’t Ignore Your Gut When Analyzing Information

Know What You Don't KnowTraditional data warehousing and data analytics vendors often present their solutions as a way to make decisions ‘based on objective facts’ rather than relying on ’emotional gut feel’. The problem, however, is the known ‘objective facts’ may not provide a complete and accurate picture of what’s really going on.

Even worse, some organizations over-emphasize hard data to the point of employees feeling compelled to ignore their ‘gut’, their intuition, that something is not right.

That’s a big mistake, says best-selling business author and professor Michael Roberto, in his book Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen – a book I first mentioned here on this blog not long after it was published in 2009.

Please read the entire article on the Smart Data Collective site.