Published here July 2008.


Musings Index

The Curse of Knowledge and Making Decisions

In an article in The New York Times, December 30, 2007, titled: Bright Ideas - Innovative Minds Don't Think Alike, Janet Rae-Dupree observes:

"It's a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

The so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you've become an expert in a particular subject, it's hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it's time to accomplish a task - open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance - those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path."


"Chip Heath, who with his brother, Dan, was a co-author of the 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, says "It's why engineers design products ultimately useful only to other engineers. It's why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it's why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers.

I have a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it, and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too," Mr. Heath says. "People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can't imagine what it's like to be as ignorant as the rest of us. To innovate you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can't communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise."

Amen to that. At the warm up to your next project team meeting, ask each of those present: "How many buttons do you have on your home video remote controls?" If some have more than one remote, tell them they are in luck, count all of them! Then ask: "How many of those buttons do you know what they actually do? Wouldn't life be less stressful if it was simpler?"!

Now consider how that idea of simplicity might be applied to your current project, or even just to how you communicate about the project. Who knows, you might even come up with better solutions to the problem.

But coming up with better solutions involves making choices — and making decisions. And the fact is, most project managers are not very good at it. If you don't believe that, try taking the test in our Guest paper Testing Your Judgment in Making Decisions. Authors Lev Verine and Michael Trumper have given us permission to reproduce this test taken from their book Project Decisions: The Art and Science.

To a large extent, project management is the art of making the right decisions, and many of them. So, have you ever wondered about your ability to make good decisions when running your project? Of course, you challenge your team to give you guidance, but in the last analysis it has to be your decision. How good is that in reality?

Certainly, to be effective as a project manager, you must know how to make rational project management choices, what processes can help you improve these choices, and what tools are available to guide you through the decision-making process. To tackle these issues, Verine and Trumper have developed an entertaining and easy-to-read guide to a structured project decision analysis process.

From their book you can learn such things as how to:

  • Understand psychological pitfalls related to project management
  • Establish a creative business environment in your organization
  • Develop estimates of project time and cost based on an understanding of human psychology
  • Communicate the results of decision analysis to decision-makers
  • Review project decisions and perform adaptive project management

If you can do all of that successfully, you might just be able to improve your score in the test.

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