The Curse of Knowledge

It has been said that the curse of knowledge is that what we know becomes invisible to us and we take it for granted. The corollary is also true, we do not know what we do not know – our blind spots are also invisible to us.

Picture this scene from a few years ago… A high energy lecture touching maths, physics, astronomy and multi-disciplinary research. It was content designed to keep attendees awake (or in some cases putting them to sleep)… The lecturers’ topic was, “the multiverse” – the way we have a variety of alternative realities, each potential with an alternative perspective on our current one. For Marvel fans think “Into the Spiderverse”!

Max Tegmark, the astrophysicist (who looked more Brazilian than his Swedish-American heritage might make you think) was in his early fifties. Herr Doctor Professor had an enigmatic smile, foppish brown hair covering his eyes… he favoured his left hand, making gesticulations that touched on the finer points of his complex theory. When speaking about gaps in our perception and understanding… he used a phrase that really grabbed my attention. He said, “We don’t know, what we don’t know… so who should we ask?”

Filling in the gaps of my own knowledge and uncovering my blind spots came strongly to mind as Lauren Davis from Aurecon and I discussed an upcoming “Explore the Problem” Design to Innovate workshop two years ago. We were pitching a potential client, who was trying to discover what was going on with a tunnel that just wasn’t performing the way they designed.

As a Performance and Change practitioner, my gig is all about the people. I’m paying attention to tiredness in the control room, the resilience of the network managers, the team dynamics of the asset operators and really… what’s going on in the cars of people using the tunnel. So, I kept asking myself the question: “I don’t know what I don’t know… so who should I ask?” How do we map out the things we are ignorant of in our own silo of expertise? Lauren and I asked a range of people with differing perspectives to the workshop:

  • from the client… marketing, control room operators, modellers, executives;
  • from the engineering industry… digital, roads, tunnelling, stakeholder engagement; and
  • outside organisations… the city council, department of transport.

The result last year was a commission to explore whether the problem really was the problem, and we went wide with our research project as a result. An engineer, Hannah Irving and I ended up involving 64 people from 18 different disciplines and we worked well together. In the end, the causes of the performance issues lay outside common experience, in information never gathered before. What we found was both a structural blind spot (no cameras or road loops) and an organisational blind spot (driver’s behavioural experience of the asset). Our research produced results that the client never expected.

This brings me to my most recent example of discovery about things we don’t know… and working with a new client leader from the construction industry. I’m working with him on a project in Sydney. I took a call from him about some issues he had not really dealt with before:

  • developing a new culture in an alliance arrangement;
  • standing up a board with members who didn’t know each other;
  • going on a fifteen year commercial journey.

This stuff is my bread and butter. Great for coaching. This leader is the decision maker – just like any senior figure from a client you might work with… he was the one person who needs to understand what’s what. I found myself saying to him: “You don’t know what you don’t know… so who should you ask?” He laughed and said, “Why do you think I’m calling you!” Involvement in gigs like this gives us the opportunity to move from being a technical advisor toward being a trusted advisor.

We all aspire to be the ones they call when they don’t know what they don’t know because, as Max pointed out those years ago in the multiverse lecture – we can offer “a variety of alternative realities, each with a different perspective on the current one.”