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”!

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How 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” (sometimes called the royal “we”). I suspect most people have heard a so-called “leader” make a cutting 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 using the pronoun “we” to stifle communication. This kind of behavior is also a sign of a dysfunctional exclusive-we culture, in which information sharing is discouraged in favor of information hoarding. 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.”

That’s more like it, huh? This time the speaker is invoking the collective “we” to equally include everyone in the room to foster open communication.

True leaders are builders of a collective-we culture, actively encouraging and supporting information sharing and collaboration. A collective-we organization is, therefore, much more likely to utilize knowledge management (KM)/enterprise information management (EIM) tools. Doing so enables the organization to not only solve problems more quickly, but also proactively find problems before they turn into a crisis.

Know What You Don't Know by Michael RobertoIn his excellent book Know What You Don’t Know, business school professor Michael Roberto urged organizations to develop problem finding skills. In a recent interview, Roberto discussed four key ways KM/EIM solutions can enable the collective knowledge, the collective-we, of your organization:

Organizations must 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?

Such an unflinching self-assessment after a business failure often reveals misinformed decisions caused by incomplete information that did not include critical business signals. These signals usually do not reside within structured databases and data warehouses; rather, they are often found within unstructured content: text-based information buried within documents, customer notes, wikis, email, news and websites.

A modern KM platform will integrate and harmonize disparate enterprise data sources – structured and unstructured, internal and external – for fast, on-demand access by knowledge workers. This capability is a key prerequisite to becoming a collective-we organization capable of effective problem finding.

Boil large quantities of information down to what really matters.

If you [write] a 100-page report, no one is going to read it. The answer is not a big report… The most important thing is boiling it down into key bullets… and technology can play a role in helping to share the key takeaways.

A unified KM/EIM system will index, find and present the key takeaways from every “100-page report no one is going to read” on demand, so users can utilize them 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 rep used the company’s KM system to search for a possible resolution. Success! The system found some “key takeaways” extracted from a 100-plus page application development transitional document written by one of the original programmers.

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

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

You can’t chase down everything yourself. I think part of the job of the leader is to recognize that you have talent around you that can help you.

The most effective companies, particularly global companies that have people spread out around the world, are using new tools to get people sharing information across different silos.

The same financial services firm also integrated key information about their own employees into their KM system, including each worker’s areas of subject matter expertise and current areas of research. Through such “expert finder” capabilities, a worker within a global organization can find and seek help from co-workers, whether they’re down the hall or anywhere else in the world – once again, empowering the organization’s collective-we to cross international boundaries.

Collective-we organizations fully leverage the power of KM/EIM to fully leverage the collective intelligence of the entire organization. They find business problems before they become serious issues, as well as seize new business opportunities before the competition even knows they exist. How about you?

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

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Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic picture book Madeline has been enjoyed by generations of children – my own daughters included. The story also has an important lesson on analyzing, and questioning, information, and integrating intuition with data.

Children are perennially attracted to Madeline, the smallest yet most adventurous of twelve little girls in a Paris boarding school. In the first Madeline book, Miss Clavel, the girls’ teacher and caregiver, suddenly awoke one night sensing trouble:

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, “Something is not right!”

Sure enough, she found Madeline in her bed, in pain from appendicitis. Of course, all turns out well, thanks to Miss Clavel listening to her personal sense that something was not right.

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That scene from Madeline came to mind while reading Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen by business professor and author Michael Roberto.

One of the most troubling causes of unseen problems mushrooming into catastrophes, Roberto writes, is an organizational culture that dismisses intuition in favor of hard data:

Some organizations exhibit a highly analytical culture [to the point that] employees may self-censor their concerns… In one case, a manager told me, “I was trained to rely on data [which] pointed in the opposite direction of my [correct] hunch that we had a problem. I relied on the data and ignored that nagging feeling in my gut.

Roberto drives this point home with a serious real-world medical problem: Many hospitals experience high levels of cardiac arrest among admitted patients. One study found hospital personnel who observed some advance warning sign(s) of cardiac arrest alerted a doctor only 25% of the time. Why? Nurses and other staff felt a Miss Clavel-like sense that “Something is not right” with a patient who was indeed nearing cardiac arrest, but it may have been based on a subjective observation, such as the patient’s mental condition and level of fatigue or discomfort, with no accompanying significant change in patient monitoring data.

The consequences of a hospital culture that unwittingly encourages caregivers to ignore their intuition are high. Once the window of opportunity to avert cardiac arrest closes, a life or death “Code Blue” crisis is at hand.

As Roberto’s hospital case study illustrates, a gnawing sense that “Something is not right” should not be ignored, but rather recognized as an alert that you probably do not have all the facts, but rather just some of the facts; that is, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Recognizing this issue, many hospitals have implemented new Rapid Response Teams that have sharply reduced Code Blue incidents. Nurses and staff are actively encouraged to report observed warning signs, including concerns not (yet( supported by observed data. Once notified, the Rapid Response Team will arrive at an affected patient’s bedside within minutes and actively diagnose whether further testing or treatment to prevent a cardiac arrest is warranted. Unlike a Code Blue team that “fights the fire” of a full-on heart attack, Roberto writes, a Rapid Response Team “detects the smoke” of a potential heart attack.

Traditional 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 is, however, the known ‘objective facts’, the known ‘hard data’, may not provide a complete — or even accurate — picture of what’s really going on.

So, listen to your gut, your intuition, as a signal that you need to dig deeper into the matter at hand. Actively seek out further information beyond the hard data available to you. Compare that information with your hard data and “connect the dots” for a far more complete picture, which may well yield surprising new insights.

What I find very exciting is that unified information access is playing a vital role in empowering managers and leaders to connect those dots between data and other silos of information to realize those critical new insights.

Unified information access integrates, joins and presents all related information — structured data and unstructured content alike — to complete the informational picture and significantly expand what organizations “know” to determine with confidence whether “Something is not right.”