How to avoid the curse of knowledge

By Adriana Beal

A risk all knowledge workers face is remaining attached to an idea that worked for them in the past and stopping to look for better alternatives too soon in a new initiative.

The more we learn about a business domain, the larger the risk we’ll stop studying the problem before it’s fully understood, and start locking down requirements without leaving room for the exploration that can lead to a more creative solution and generate more value for our organization.

This illustration helps explain the issue:

Illustration from, attributed to Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences.


When you develop intimate knowledge of a business domain, it’s harder to remain open to new perspectives. As you talk to someone with a different view of the problem you’re trying to solve, you may begin thinking about what you want to say before they’ve even made their point, rather than truly listening to find the holes in your current thinking. As you read a report, you may start glossing over the parts that contradict your opinion. In summary, you may develop a blindness that prevents you from seeing other more viable options, or makes you ignore facts that suggest you are on the wrong path.

I’ve seen a talented business analyst who had been very successful in defining requirements for invoicing systems in the credit card industry fail terribly after shifting to the telecommunication industry. Her mistake was to reuse what she knew to be true about invoicing in her previous industry while ignoring the key differences between billing customers for purchases they made using a credit card and for phone calls charged based on call duration.

Luckily, it’s possible to avoid the trap of holding too tightly to ideas and concepts from our past. The trick is to stay curious, humble and open, actively seeking out views and opinions that differ from your own, and looking for ideas that actually go against what we know to be true. To help you achieve this goal, I’m going to share a framework that has helped me over the years to avoid tunnel vision when starting a new project in a domain I was already familiar with. It’s based on a 6-question framework published in a newsletter by Dan and Chip Heath, authors of the book Decisive, and it asks you to look for answers for 3 questions:

1. Imagine that the option you’re currently leaning toward simply vanished as a feasible alternative. What else could you do?

Why this question works: A very common decision making trap is “narrow framing,” which means we get stuck in one way of thinking about the problem, and fail to consider other options that would be as valuable.

By forcing ourselves to generate a second alternative we CANNOT do what we originally though, we often surface a new insight.

Let’s say you are working on the requirements for an e-commerce platform, and realize that there will be a lot of complexity in offering reduced shipping costs for VIP customers, a feature requested by the marketing department. You could pretend that differentiating shipping costs based on customer tier has been deemed impractible, and then explore other options to achieve the desired outcome of rewarding loyal customers with discounts. A potential solution could be to reuse the existing promotion engine to automatically apply a discount the products in the cart of VIP customers, leaving the shipping charges untouched. It’s possible that the marketing team would be equally happy with the simpler and cheaper alternative solution that you found by pretending the more complex and expensive one is out of reach.

2. Imagine that the alternative you are currently considering will actually turn out to be a terrible decision. Where could you go looking for the proof of that right now?


3. Six months from now, what evidence would make you change your mind about the choice you’ve made? What would make you double-down?

Why these questions work: A huge enemy of good decision-making is “confirmation bias,” our tendency to seek out information that supports what we want to be true, rather than go hunting for discomfirming data. These two question compel you to look for contradictory information.

Example: In the early stages of one of my projects to build an executive dashboard, top managers who would use the solution asked for real time updates on the data feeds. In speaking to the technical team, I learned that this would cause the project to become much more expensive and time-consuming. By asking these two questions, I was able to find evidence that all decisions that would be made with the help of the executive dashboard happened on a biweekly or monthly basis, making real-time, and even hourly or daily updates entirely unnecessary for project success. It was clear that the choice of supporting real time updates would be regretted later, given the high cost of maintenance without any real benefit associated with it.

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Even the most talented expert can get trapped into the same points of salience, the same causal relationships. Their mastery may end up causing them to produce the same kind of resolution every time, even when the context demands something different. The next time you’re starting a new project in a business domain you’re already familiar with, remember that with the right mindset, you can increase the odds of finding a superior resolution to the problem at hand. Use the 3 questions suggested here, and you may find yourself coming up with new ideas that minimize the amount of work required to achieve the desired outcomes, and create unparalleled innovation opportunities for your organization.