knowing too much

Have you ever played the game where you are required to whistle a song while the rest of your team tries desperately to guess what tune is coming out of your mouth? You keep whistling the same thing, while they keep guessing the wrong thing, and the time quickly evaporates, and then it’s over. Nobody got it. You whistled so perfectly but they had no idea. Not only is it frustrating because now your team is down a point, but how did they not get that you were whistling the theme to Love Boat? It was so obvious– to you.

Now maybe you wouldn’t go as far as considering yourself an expert at whistling, but the idea played out in the game is a demonstration of the principle of how others don’t always see (or in this case hear) what seems perfectly clear to another–which can stagnate a process whether it be during a simple game or in more serious “innovation.” In the article, Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike, Janet Rae-Dupree, states, “As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off.” As we become more educated in a particular subject, we tend to only know how to do it one way and the innovation gets lost.

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, co-author Chip Heath (who wrote the book with his brother) says, “experts [are] cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us. To innovate,” says Heath, “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. You’ve got to find the common connections.” Cynthia Barton Rabe, author of Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine, suggests using outside help or what she terms zero-gravity thinkers to help keep creativity and innovation on track. When people have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems. Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field. Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”