One of my favourite authors is Steven Pinker. I read a fascinating article by him recently where he described a phenomenon he called “The Curse of Knowledge”. Sometimes knowing too much about a subject can get in the way of communicating with people who are not so well informed – you assume that they understand ideas which are second nature to you.  He used this concept to explain why sometimes people struggle to write well.  The curse of knowledge gets in the way and they leave their readers behind.

I think that this idea applies beyond mere writing.  Have you heard of Kaggle? Kaggle is a website on which people compete to solve data problems.  Right now the US Department of Homeland Security is offering a prize of USD $1.5 Million to improve their algorithms for passenger screening.  I think this is a fascinating and practical way to solve such problems.  Put up a parcel of money as a prize and then award it to the team which comes up with the best solution.

The history of Kaggle shows that their competitions are almost never won by subject matter experts.  Marketing people tend not to win the marketing challenges, logistics people tend not to win the logistics ones and so on.  Why?  It may well be because of the curse of knowledge.  People with domain expertise tend to see the problems in the traditional way of their discipline, which gets in the way of true creativity and lateral thinking.

SACS is heavily involved in competency analysis and workforce planning. We find ourselves often encouraging our clients to look beyond the traditional backgrounds that they might consider relevant to particular jobs and to prioritise true leadership, problem solving or strategy capabilities, independent of their area of experience. We have seen many occasions in which bringing someone in with a truly independent perspective can create a set of solutions which would be unavailable to the traditional subject matter expert.  Maybe the curse of knowledge can be reframed into the Blessing of Freshness.

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Andrew Marty

Managing Director

SACS Consulting

Andrew Marty
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