The Curse of Knowledge: Part 3

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In Part 1 of this series, I introduced a cognitive bias called the curse of knowledge. In Part 2, I discussed some strategies that can be used to overcome it. Today’s concluding post will examine two final strategies specific to circumventing the curse of knowledge and accomplishing successful communication.

1. Strawman Models

Growing up, my parents constantly had to remind me that “Perfection is the enemy of good.” If I’m being totally honest, they still have to remind me of that today. As a student and subsequent member of the “working world,” I have been driven by a relentless fixation on executing whatever I do to the best of my ability. In and of itself, this is not a negative thing; it promotes success, high quality work, and intellectual integrity. That said, an obsession with one’s best can also be extremely counterproductive (at least when “best” is defined as perfect). The reality is that perfection is not always what’s called for. Cue the concept of a strawman model.

Like all models, strawman models function as visual representations of information. However, the defining characteristic of a strawman model is that it’s a rough draft. Its primary value is not derived from how accurately it captures the information it’s meant to represent. Rather, strawman models and any content-based imperfections therein exist to facilitate meaningful conversation.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, requirements analysts (RAs) are often tasked with developing functional competence in a variety of foreign domains. Developing that level of understanding typically involves working with subject matter experts (SMEs)—a venue where strawman models become particularly useful. Presenting a SME with a strawman model that depicts your current understanding of his/her area of expertise can quickly highlight any knowledge gaps or erroneous assumptions that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. This enables all involved to obtain greater insight into each other’s various perspectives while also providing an opportunity for collaborative learning.

2. Why?

Though “Why?” is one of the easiest questions to ask, it can also be one of the most complex to answer. Human beings have a tendency to act on the basis of assumptions and preconceptions that they don’t even realize they have (thus the existence of the curse of knowledge). Within the field of requirements analysis, this kind of behavior can be detrimental to project success. So many projects culminate in software that solves all of the wrong problems, assuming it even gets that far. As requirements analysts, one of our greatest contributions is our ability to (1) illuminate stakeholder assumptions and (2) identify the true issues involved so that the appropriate solutions can be undertaken. We accomplish this by asking “Why?” (often more than once). In so doing, we encourage the thorough consideration of things assumed to be “givens.” This type of analysis typically results in discoveries like the “givens” aren’t valid; the basic project goals are actually different from what was originally expressed; the proposed solution is overly complex, insufficient, or irrelevant, etc.

Conclusion 

Regardless of the strategies you employ, the fundamental principle remains the same–exercising purposeful consideration of others’ perspectives is highly conducive to productive interactions.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to share any personal experiences with this topic in the comments!

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