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HBX Business Blog

The Curse of Knowledge and How to Combat It

Posted by Patrick Healy on July 21, 2016 at 4:25 PM


How many times have you been in a meeting at work or conversing with a colleague, listening intently, and then suddenly have no idea what the speaker is talking about? It’s as if the person started speaking another language.

This is a great example of The Curse of Knowledge (TCOK). What is this "curse" exactly? It's not the result of a magical incantation, but it can be just as deadly to a company’s health as an Avada Kedavra off the wand of a powerful wizard (where my Harry Potter fans at?). The term was coined by Professors Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick, to describe a situation in which experts are unable to communicate their ideas to novices because they have forgotten what it’s like to be unfamiliar with their area of interest. But TCOK also exists in other fields—from professors that excel in their research but fail to teach basic concepts effectively, to scientists that struggle to communicate their findings to the public.

I had my own experience with TCOK recently at HBX. It occurred while recording an interview for one of our new courses in development (more details on such courses coming soon!). After I finished asking a question to the interviewee, red lights on our two cameras suddenly began flashing.

Hey Pat,” said the multimedia producer on the shoot with me. “The chip is full, we’re gonna take five. Hold the roll for tail sticks.” The words flew over my head as soon as they left his mouth.

Come again, Chuck?” I inquired.

The card is full,” he said. “We have to hold the roll for a sec…

The roll?” I said with ignorance. “The roll of film...” he replied. “The card is full and we have to put in another.” He seemed dumbstruck that I didn’t know such basic film lingo.

OK, well what are tail sticks?” I asked. He launched into a five minute explanation. I still don’t know what tail sticks are…

In the case of my HBX film shoot, it can be said that my buddy Chuck was “cursed” by his knowledge of film—he couldn’t help but rely on insider lingo to try to explain to me nuanced concepts (without success I might add).

Now, I must admit that I am completely ignorant about many things (film definitely being one of them). However, I’m guessing that many of you can relate to such an experience, whether in the world of film or in some other realm. If so, you’ve come into close contact with the curse and lived to tell the tale.

But organizations can fall victim too. TCOK is especially common in traditional businesses in which teams are comprised of functional specialists. From product development to marketing, to finance, operations, HR and down the line, specialization often makes communication across functional groups more difficult (especially if unnecessary jargon is involved). For example, how often have you seen engineers and salesmen talking past each other at your company? Or maybe tech and HR butting heads? The result is lost productivity and general frustration.

But hold on, the curse not only exists horizontally across functions, but also vertically across levels. For example, leaders at the top will oftentimes speak rather abstractly about corporate strategy. A CEO may aim to “unlock shareholder value” with some new complicated maneuver or “exploit synergies” through an acquisition. But what exactly does this mean for employees on the front lines? What actions should they take to align with such a strategy? Your guess is as good as mine.

So, how can we combat The Curse of Knowledge to make our companies more productive? In my experience, there are two keys:

1. Find a common language that everyone in your business speaks

To be clear, this is different than “dumbing things down.” It’s more like finding a lowest common denominator that everyone, no matter their role or position, can understand. For example, if a manufacturing business consists of architects, engineers, and floor workers operating machines, the architects and engineers will likely be able to understand the machines they helped build, but the floor workers might not be able to decipher the designs and prototypes of said machines. If a problem with a machine arises, it makes most sense then for all three groups to go down to the floor and speak in the language of the floor workers to resolve the problem. Abstracting to design-speak would be far less effective. This takes practice and empathy but is well worth the effort.

2. Always use concrete language whenever possible

Vague language never helped anyone (except maybe to get out of a lawsuit). For example, if you’re a leader trying to convey a new strategy to your organization, you should favor the specific over the broad. Your mission can be broad, but your strategy should be as specific as possible. Stories and images can work wonders. For example, instead of aiming to “become the leader in customer service” you might tell your employees that you aim to become “the type of company that would order a pizza for your customers to close a sale.” That conveys the extent you’re willing to go to (and the actions the employees might need to take) to execute on the strategy.

Lifting The Curse of Knowledge from your organization won’t be easy. Experts have been around for ages and, like it or not, workers are often still paid for what they know and for what they have done than for how well they can collaborate. However, by using a common language, one that’s concrete and filled with images and stories, you may just break the curse.

Please comment below with your thoughts, and tell me what tail sticks are!

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About the Author

Pat is a member of the HBX Course Delivery Team and currently works on the Economics for Managers course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program. He is also currently working to design courses in Management and Negotiations for the HBX platform. Pat holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College. In his free time he enjoys playing tennis and strumming the guitar.

Topics: HBX Insights