Multiplication Center

7 Deadly Assumptions #4 – Others Understand Things the Way I Do

May 18, 2015

Boss with employees

Our next Deadly Assumption in this series is the assumption that “others understand things the way I do,” and it’s a killer when it comes to collaboration and strong strategic decision-making.  Deadly Assumption #4 was made famous a few years ago by the dynamic decision-making duo, Chip and Dan Heath.  In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the Heath brothers wrote about a phenomenon called The Curse of Knowledge.  On the surface it doesn’t sound like much of a ‘curse’.  After all, who wouldn’t want to have knowledge?  But once you understand it, you realize the impact this assumption has on our decision making is anything but a blessing.

In their book, the Heath Brothers give the illustration of a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton who illustrated the curse of knowledge in 1990 by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, it is impossible for him or her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to the taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

As you can see, “The Curse” becomes a problem for us in strategic conversations when we try to communicate years of immersion in the status quo, or our assumptions and biases, in very broad, general language.  We assume others understand our meaning, and can’t believe they would interpret our thoughts and ideas any other way.  But the reality is we couldn’t be more wrong.

How Do You Beat the Curse?

According to the Heath Brothers, there are only two ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge reliably:

  • To not learn anything new (probably not an option for you and your team).
  • To take your ideas and transform them.

Our work at Leadership Network over the past 30 years has largely been about transforming ideas.  And not just any ideas—ideas that have eternal impact.  Kingdom ideas.  We have designed our experiences and environments in such a way as to facilitate the communication, development, and blending of ideas among groups that don’t know one another so that the Curse of Knowledge is overcome.  Here are a few strategies we have used to overcome this Deadly Assumption:

Get to the Core of Your Ideas.  Teams often come into our gatherings executing ideas that were formed years ago.  These leaders have become so familiar with their ideas, they often lose touch with what’s at the center of their strategies.  Getting back to the ‘why’ of an idea and framing it in new language is a powerful way to overcome the Curse of Knowledge for your team and those you need to communicate and gain alignment with.  During your next strategic conversation, take the focus off the ‘what’ and ‘how’, and ask about the ‘why’ behind what you’re trying to do.  And don’t settle on the first answer.  Dig down deep until you arrive at a ‘why’ that everyone wants to own and get behind.

Use Metaphor and Story to Communicate Ideas.  We are story people.  We are wired to relate to things more naturally through narrative.  If you sense that your team may be suffering from the Curse of Knowledge and believe it threatens to derail you next big idea, have your team develop a powerful metaphor for what you’re doing, or use stories to illustrate the core elements and outcomes of your strategy.  Put yourself 5 years in the future and have your team members recount the story of how you got to where you are now.  The process will force you to throw off generalities and assumptions and think deeply about your ideas.

Engage in Strategic Thinking with Outsiders.  One of the biggest ways to overcome the Curse of Knowledge is to work through your strategy with people on the outside.  They don’t know your history or modus operandi, therefore they will more naturally probe for additional information that brings clarity to your ideas and communications.  In addition, you will benefit from a different perspective that can help you broaden your thinking and enhance your strategies.

Let HUB Break the Curse

It takes energy and intentionality to overcome the Curse of Knowledge.  At Leadership Network we have incorporated the strategies above, as well as many others, into the HUB experience so that overcoming the Curse will be simple for your team.  If you’re looking to gain clarity in your strategic thinking, as well as to exchange ideas, gain insights, and accelerate results in the areas of City Impact, Generosity, Multisite, Leadership Development, or Succession Planning, click on the banner below to learn about HUB.








This blog is part of a 7-post series. Click to read each of the posts: #1 Anchoring, #2 Framing, #3 Confirmation Bias, #4 Others Understand Things the Way I Do, #5 I Knew it All Along, #6 The Overconfidence Effect, #7 Commitment Escalation.

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