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How To Outwit Your Smartest Competitors

As seen on Forbes

Market Changers Avoid Blind Spots

Let’s face it. There aren’t many stupid people running Fortune 2000 companies. At the same time, I know plenty of ridiculously successful entrepreneurs who studied beer, pizza and the opposite sex in college. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) Come to think of it, many of my entrepreneurial friends never went to college at all. So how is it that we often hear stories about the highly intelligent people running big companies being surprised and completely beaten in the marketplace by the uneducated, inexperienced and naive?

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The answer is actually hidden in the question.

Susan Robertson teaches creative thinking at Harvard University. More specifically, she teaches some of the most respected, most experienced business leaders in the world how to overcome their big brains and expertise.

“The business leaders who attend courses at Harvard often represent a sampling of the most successful business people in the world—which is precisely the challenge they need to overcome,” Susan told me. “These leaders have gotten ahead by relying on their hard-earned wisdom to solve complex problems. But when they really need innovative thinking, their expertise can actually be an obstacle. This is due to a cognitive bias (or mental shortcut) that all humans have called the ‘curse of knowledge.’ This cognitive bias creates blind spots for all of us in any area where we have expertise; our knowledge about what is limits our thinking about what might be. What’s worse, the more expert and knowledgeable a leader becomes, the more deeply rooted the curse of knowledge becomes, making innovative thinking almost impossible.”

So the “curse of knowledge” could also be called the “entrepreneurial advantage.”

In his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” my friend and leadership expert Marshall Goldsmith cites “clinging to the past” as a trait that often keeps a good leader from becoming a great one. Too often, successful leaders stubbornly double down on what’s previously worked, refusing to recognize how the world might be changing.

Conversely, when I asked social media expert and serial entrepreneur David Kerpen what he noticed about the most successful new start-ups he sees, he said this: “What’s amazing to me is that these young companies are doing things that large companies could have done years ago but didn’t. Many of the entrepreneurs behind those companies actually brought their ideas to large organizations and they were summarily dismissed, so they just started a company to make their idea a reality.”

Social media and personal branding guru Dorie Clark has been on both sides of that fence.

“In 2002, I was hired as the press secretary for former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts,” Dorie recalls. “One day, our Web guy suggested that we should start a campaign blog. I wasn’t entirely familiar with what they were. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You put up an article and then people can comment on it on the site.’

“The idea of random strangers—or, worse, opposing campaigns posing as random strangers—posting things on our own website struck me as the worst idea I’d ever heard. I immediately shot it down. The whole premise of campaign communications was to keep the campaign ‘on message’—jobs and the economy!—and to avoid making mistakes or letting distractions arise. The blog, I thought, could be a very big distraction.

A year later, I was named the New Hampshire Communications Director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. No thanks to me, we became the first presidential campaign in history with a blog, and it was a huge success. Doing my job well (as I understood it) meant I was entirely blind to how innovation could help our campaign.”

I’m Talking To You, Smarty Pants

Let’s run a quick experiment to demonstrate why you may have a giant blind spot that puts you at risk. Your boss asks you to innovate toothpaste. So you think about all the things you know about toothpaste—it comes in a tube, goes on a brush, cleans and whitens, is a paste, is stored in a cabinet, is available in a variety of zesty flavors, etc. Moreover, since you are aware of how your product is manufactured, shipped, sourced and approved by internal and external stakeholders, you make intelligent choices based on what might be easy, difficult and even impossible to do. So you offer ideas like new flavors, new packaging and perhaps a more whitening whitener. Well done.

Unfortunately, though, this is how we get razors with four blades instead of three. And consumers yawn.

Entrepreneurs are not as smart as you. They aren’t encumbered by the past, the politics, the policies or the idea police—so they are comfortable eliminating some of the “must-haves” in toothpaste. They will quite naturally ask questions like:

  • Does it have to go on a brush?
  • Does it have to come in a tube?
  • Does it have to be paste?
  • Why do we need toothpaste at all?

Asking questions like this is how we get Sonicare—an electric toothbrush that works just fine without toothpaste—potentially eliminating the need for your product among educated consumers.

“Those who live by the sword will be shot by those who don’t.”
—Gary Hamel, Leading the Revolution

Here’s the good news for large companies run by really smart people. There are practices that can be taught to your teams that overcome the “curse of knowledge” and convert all that expertise back into a strength instead of a weakness. That’s right. Your big brain and Ivy League MBA can be an asset. Hallelujah!

Attack Assumptions––Change The World

If you are paying attention, you’ll notice that challenging assumptions is how the really, really big innovations happen. For example, here is a list one might have when starting a cab company:

  • Buy fleet of cars
  • Hire drivers
  • Train drivers
  • Purchase auto insurance

Uber would not have been possible unless you intentionally struck most of these assumptions.

Here are some traditional “must-dos” needed to launch a rental property company:

  • Purchase properties
  • Engage property managers
  • Purchase property insurance

Airbnb is an idea that only happens if you are able to disregard these “must-dos.”

Want to change an industry? Make a list of all the legacy assumptions and ask your team to brainstorm ideas while eliminating one assumption at a time.

After all, that’s exactly what entrepreneurs are doing right this minute.

Follow me on Twitter @theideamonkey or read my Forbes blog here.

 

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