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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lerner

The Illusion of Knowledge Bias

If a job applicant said "I have no idea how to grow your startup" would you hire them as your VP of Growth? (Because I probably would).

Wait, hear me out… If there was an obvious way to grow your startup, you'd already have done it. If you haven’t, you're betting on your next hire to help figure it out. And candidates with the most confidence often, paradoxically, have the hardest time uncovering new ideas, thanks to the “illusion of knowledge bias.”

The illusion of knowledge bias

This bias, originally characterized by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, describes how individuals mistakenly believe they possess a deeper understanding of a topic than they actually do. They overestimate their knowledge and fail to recognize the gaps in their understanding, leading to poor decision-making and an unwillingness to seek further information.

Wait, it gets worse – If they claim to know the right strategy, they will become anchored to that approach, even if it's incorrect, thanks to the Commitment & Consistency bias. (That's the one that says: After we state a position, we’re far more likely to act in accordance with that belief, even if it’s incorrect, and less likely to consider alternatives.)

What should you do instead?

When interviewing candidates, focus less on how much they know, and more on how quickly they can figure things out.

That starts the moment a candidate walks in the door. People are uncomfortable admitting “I don’t know” — especially in a job interview! So take a moment to create space for humility and candor in the conversation. Talk about your own mistakes and blind spots, and explain that you don’t expect people to have all the answers – only to figure them out.

Then ask questions about their experience finding and applying new information, such as:

  1. Tell me about a time when you were wrong about something? How did you find out? And what did you do as a result?

  2. What’s something you learned recently from your customers or your data that surprised you? What did you do with that information?

  3. Looking at our business, what things do we need to figure out before we can scale? And how do you suggest we bottom those things out?

  4. Tell me about a time when you had to tell your boss they were wrong, how did that conversation go?

These aren’t easy questions, give them time to think. As they’re answering, focus on what they say plus how they say it. Are they comfortable talking about surprises and unknowns? Have they thought about these things before?

Simple next step

Be honest with yourself, are you hiring a VP of “drive it like you stole it” or a VP of “figure out how to grow my business?” If you need someone to figure it out, hire with that explicit mandate, and ask the whole team to do everything they can to support the discovery process. By the way, this approach can also unlock thinking in your existing team.

I hope this helps!

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