Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike

Homer Simpson It’s known as the Curse of Knowledge. Once you know something really well, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it. That’s why many experts have a hard time explaining their field to someone outside their field.

This curse also effects the ability to be creative and innovative. It’s quite a paradox. The more you know about the box, the less you’re able to think outside of it. Sucks, huh?

I was just going through some old clipped news articles, when I came across this one from Janet Rae-Dupree of the New York Times: “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike” (from which I stole for this blog post title). And it got me thinking about innovation again.

In the book “Made to Stick” by Chip & Dan Heath, they wrote about some research Stanford PhD candidate Elizabeth Newton did for her dissertation in 1990. In it, she asked participants to tap the rhythm of well-known songs like “Happy Birthday to You,” then asked them to predict how often a listener could identify the song. They predicted around 50%. But in reality, listeners only identified the songs 2.5% of the time. The tappers were incredulous. “How could you be so stupid?” some said.

In a similar study on email communication, researchers from New York University, University of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that readers of emails don’t pick up on subtle nuances (like sarcasm) as much as the writers believe they will. They even consider it a kind of an egotistical behavior. Sounds like common sense when you hear it stated this way, right? But I’m sure you’ve had a few cases where a friend or colleague misunderstood your sarcastic remarks as an attack of some kind. That’s sure happened to me.

Even Fred Wilson, Nick Denton, and Clay Shirky touched on this issue when they debated the optimal age to be an entrepreneur. Shirky weighed in with the conclusion that inexperienced minds are better able to make connections and think creatively that more knowledgeable minds.

These are examples of the curse of knowledge. It doesn’t just effect experts; it effects us all. When we form mental maps of the things we know, then assume that other people have a similar mental map, it can lead to misunderstandings and confusion. (Oops, did I just assume you knew the term mental map? My bad.)

Fortunately, there’s a way around this.

In the book “The Innovation Killer“, author Cynthia Barton Rabe suggests bringing in someone new. A fresh eye and a fresh perspective. One anecdote she shares is about Eveready and their flashlight business, which was foundering in the mid-1980s. One of Rabe’s colleagues came to the team with no flashlight experience, but plenty of consumer packaging and marketing experience. So she decided to revamp the flashlight product line (with the inclusion of bright colors, like pink, baby blue, and light green) and revise its distribution strategy (by selling them through grocery store chains). Until then, flashlights were dull colored, sold in hardware stores, and aimed solely at men. This new move, which would have never occurred to the old team, brought huge success and new customers, especially women.

Another way is to train your mind to think creatively. Fortunately, there are a number of brainstorming techniques you can use to push your mind toward innovative thinking. First, it involves realizing that you need to think creatively and opening your mind to all new ideas, no matter how “stupid” they may seem. If your mind is truly open, then no new idea is stupid, you know. Then it involves redefining the problem, looking at topics outside of the subject matter (lateral thinking), and changing your perspective.

I hope this helps the next time you’re struck with the Curse of Knowledge. Good luck!

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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