The Curse of Knowledge


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“We need people with industry experience working on our new product launch. A person new to our market would never understand the nuances of what our customers need.”

Do these statements sound like ones you or a colleague have made? I’ve made them. But a new book, Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, considers such knowledge risky, giving it the appellation “the curse of knowledge.” (If you haven’t read Made to Stick, stop reading this blog now and buy it online or borrow it from your local library.)

What is the curse of knowledge? It’s what happens when we don’t remember what it’s like not to know something. In order to experience this phenomenon, the authors suggest asking someone to listen as you tap out the rhythm to a familiar tune, and then to ask him or her to guess the tune you’re tapping. I selected Bertha by The Grateful Dead, and even my most ardent Dead-head friends were unable to decipher the tune that was so clearly playing in my mind. Try this yourself and let me know if your outcomes are consistently different.

This exercise drives a compelling point: we’re tapping familiar tunes in the form of our marketing messages, but those receiving our messages can’t understand them. Our knowledge gets in the way!

Is this curse of knowledge just the latest management-by-magazine-fluff or the tip of the iceberg? To find out, I looked at the websites of the major advertisers for a publication targeted for senior information technology executives, CMP’s InformationWeek. I didn’t need to seach far or dig deep to understand how right the authors are.

Here are some of my favorite examples. Can anyone figure out which tunes these marketers are tapping out?

Cisco Solutions: “Deliver the best user experience, increase operational excellence, and innovate with a comprehensive set of Cisco network solutions that address the present and future needs of your business, whether it is large or small.”

–Take out the words “Cisco network solutions” and substitute the name of any other product or service, and the statement still works.

Samsung: “Samsung solidifies its lead in flash memory technology with the all-flash solid state drive. The Samsung SSD looks like a hard disk drive, but it definitely doesn’t act like one. That’s due to the NAND flash inside. It’s the basis for the SSD’s remarkable reliability, blazing speed, low total cost of ownership, virtually unlimited shock resistance, and meager power consumption. Compare the SSD and HDD, and you’ll understand why Popular Mechanics (sic) selected the Samsung SSD for a 2007 Breakthrough award.”

–If you don’t know what these acronyms and terms mean, you’re probably not bright enough to use Samsung’s products anyway.

BMC Software: “How do you meet daily IT demands and still drive the business? You do it with Business Service Management (BSM), the most effective approach for managing IT from the perspective of the business. BSM combines best-practice IT processes – such as ITIL® and automated technology management – with a shared view of how IT services support basic business priorities: grow revenue, reduce cost, lower risk.”

–How many vague, worn-out terms can you jam into one sentence?

And here’s the kicker: The cover of InformationWeek’s November 19, 2007 issue, Evolution of the CIO (in which some of these companies advertised), states “The demands of the job are changing like never before. Are you fit enough to survive?”

That question needs to be asked of everyone who wants to sell to CIO’s as well.


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