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What You Know Can Hurt You

Expertise and experience can get in the way of innovation. If you think you
know something that it’s hard to be open to learning. If you don’t even know
why you think something it’s hard to be open to the possibility of being wrong.
We gain qualifications in what is already known. We are promoted for what we
have already done. Problem is that eventually what you know may be wrong,
old-fashioned, out-dated, unhelpful and finally dangerous.

If we didn’t base some of what we do on the past then we would waste a lot of
time. Imagine being reset every morning. Your memories erased of everything
after you hit ten years old. You would spend the entire day just trying to figure
out where you fit into the world. Everything you did would seem new, but it
wouldn’t contribute much because everyone would already know it.

Our heuristic memory, the shortcuts we use to let us know how to react based on
what we have learned or done in the past are useful. But they are also flawed.
You have picked them up at home, school, and work. You have learned them from
what people have said, how they have behaved, and what you have read and
thought. Your brain recognizes patterns and processes them according to various
prejudices. Not that they are automatically wrong. They are just pre-judged.

Experts, it is said, know more and more about less and less. That’s okay. We
needed expertise – deep knowledge about narrow subjects. It is a problem when
experts know more and more about what matters less and less. It is a problem
when experts know more and more but care less and less about what people
know or think. And it is a problem when experts confuse knowing more with
knowing everything or think that the assumptions of their community are the
same as knowledge. They defend old positions and attack new approaches.

Intimidating Infallibility or pretending you are always right may boost your
reputation as an expert but comes with some drawbacks even if you are usually
right. First, no-one will tell when you are wrong. Stalin told his generals that Hitler
would never invade Russian so they didn’t tell him for three days that German
troops had crossed the border. Shooting dissenters didn’t help either.
Blinding Brilliance from experts can leave them with the last word too often. One
medical researcher became an expert then vowed to never write another word
on the subject. He viewed it expertise as journey and becoming an expert the end
of the journey. He has since become an expert again in a new field, retired again,
and begun his third journey.

He asks, “Is redemption possible for the sins of expertness?”, and proposed that,
“more people could retire from their fields and turn their intelligence,
imagination, and methodological acumen to new problem areas where, having
shed most of their prestige and with no prior personal pronouncements to
defend, they could enjoy the liberty to argue new evidence and ideas on the
latter's merits”

Expert Novices help to look at problems with fresh perspectives. Stupid questions
are often just questions that start without the preconditioning of expertise. Try
answering them even if they come from someone who has no right to be asking.
Your working assumptions are shortcuts but also constraints. An expert from one
subject may easily solve puzzles in another because bring new knowledge. Inviting
someone smart enough to understand what you are doing but without the
downside of years of indoctrination helps avoid the obviously right solution being
applied at the wrong time.

Experiments have shown that novices often make fewer mistakes than experts.
Novices think about their answers in new ways and apply the knowledge they
have from other areas to the problem at hand. Experts can fall into two main
traps: Some offer off-the-shelf solutions and approaches that they make them
feel comfortable because they have used them before. Others find decisions
difficult because they can see so many sides of the same issue or situation.

Exploring Opposites is a powerful technique for overcoming the constraints of


expertise and tradition. List the key components of an accepted solution and then
list the reverse of each component. Then try and make the reverse work. Imagine
what would have to change to support it. Consider what the competition would
do as a result. Reverse what is obvious to expert opinion and the result is original.
Obvious Original
Cinema charged money for people to watch Television showed people films for free inside
films outside of their homes. their homes. Advertisers paid for the films.
Customers paid for the televisions.
Car manufacturers sell customers cars. Petrol Electric car manufacturers sell customers cars
companies sell customers petrol to put in their and rent customers batteries to customers to
cars. power their cars. Electricity companies sell
electricity to charge the batteries.
Product companies put their merchandise in Product companies remove all their packaging
glossy packaging to make the product look so that the company looks environmentally
good. friendly. The product now has to look better
because that’s what the customer buys.
Health insurance companies help customers to Health insurance companies help customers to
pay for their medical bills. They take guesses improve their health. Customers pay on a
at how much everyone will need and then sliding scale based on their compliance with a
divide the total bill by each the number of health program. Customers get healthier and
people and everyone pays a share. reduce the overall cost of care.

“Trust me, it will never happen” is overconfidence based on the flimsy


foundation of past knowledge and wishful thinking. There are thousands of
wonderful statements by esteemed experts dismissing future possibilities.

On hearing of attempts at anesthesia, one surgeon exclaimed: “The abolishment


of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it... Knife and pain are
two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the
patient.” Similarly, the space advisor to the British government declared in 1956,
that, “Space travel is utter bilge.” Experts have declared cars, airplanes, home
computing, radio, telephones, and nuclear power impossible.

Accepted wisdom has proved to be wrong many times in the past, so why
wouldn’t accepted wisdom be proved wrong in the future? Eventually, what is
ambitious and rule changing about a discipline or profession becomes routine,
backwards looking, a ticket to prestige and a barrier to progress. As Ustinov once
said, “If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an
expert saying it can't be done.”
References

Baird, RR, 2001, “Experts sometimes show more false recall than novices: a cost
of knowing too much”, Learning and Individual Differences, Volume 13, Issue 4,
2001, Pages 349-355

Cerf, C, & Navasky, V, 1984, “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of
Authoritative Misinformation”, Pantheon Books

Eichenwald, K, 2005, “Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story”, Broadway Books

Halberstam, D, 1993, “The Best and the Brightest”, Fawcett Books; Twentieth-
anniversary Ed edition

Horibe, F, 2001, “Creating The Innovation Culture: Leveraging Visionaries,


Dissenters, And Other Useful Troublemakers In Your Organization”, John Wiley &
Sons

Leonard, D, Swap, W, 2005, “Deep Smarts: How To Cultivate And Transfer


Enduring Business Wisdom”, Harvard Business School Press

Rabe, CB, 2006, “Innovation Killers: How What We Know Limits What We Can
Imagine – And What Smart Companies Are Doing About It”, American
Management Association

Sackett, DL, 2000, “Personal views: The sins of expertness and a proposal for
redemption”, British Medical Journal, May 6; 320(7244): 1283.

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