Barbie and the Curse of Knowledge

by Jerome Provensal

Innovation doesn’t always come from experts:  Beware of the “curse of knowledge”

It’s the early 1950s.

Ruth Handler watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles. At the time, most children’s toy dolls were representations of infants. Realizing that there could be a gap in the market, Handler suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. He was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors as they found it silly. Little girls didn’t want to play with grownups! Besides, what did Ruth know about the toy business? She was just an outsider!

During a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children, Ruth Handler noticed a strange-looking doll in the window of a cigarette shop in Germany. The doll was eleven inches tall and had platinum-blond hair, long legs, and an ample bosom. Her name was Bild Lilli. What Ruth didn’t know, because she was an outsider and she didn’t know the language and local culture, is that the doll was actually a “sex symbol”, sold mainly to middle-aged men.

When the family returned home, Handler continued to lobby her husband to build an Americanized version of the Bild Lilli. She eventually succeeded but it took 3 years to convince Mattel’s executives to build it and for the first Barbie to be released. Before long, the plastic toy became the cultural icon that we know today. Mattel and its reluctant executives have sold over 1 billion Barbies in 150 countries.

The outsider’s point of view

The moral of the story is that Ruth Handler was an outsider. She was an outsider to the German culture which made her fail to grasp the bawdy back-story of Bild Lilli; if she had, she would have certainly not bought it for her daughter. She was also an outsider to the toy industry which provided her with a fresh pair of eyes. She wasn’t suffering from what’s sometime known as “the curse of knowledge” where being an expert in a field prevents one from coming up with novel/radical ideas.

It’s difficult to escape the “curse of knowledge”. However, there are techniques and approaches that I will describe in future posts that can help. That said, there is one thing that is easy to do… don’t be afraid to seek outsiders for your problems/projects.

Seek a “fresh pair of eyes”

Like most managers who have been working on a project for awhile, I know mine pretty well but I might know very little about other projects done in my company. We all have a good understanding of the industry in which we are revolving but I still remain an outsider to those other projects. Would I mind, if every so often they invited me to one of their brainstorming sessions to get a fresh perspective on their work? Absolutely not!

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way and other people will jump at the chance to be the “fresh pair of eyes”, no? Another good source of “fresh pair of eyes” that might be easily discarded by seasoned managers are: interns and new grads. That’s a mistake to me. Give them a chance to absorb enough knowledge so that they understand the subject matter. But also elicit their feedback, ideas, comments and opinions, early and often. Be open-minded and listen to what they have to say.

Who knows, between the two of you, you might come up with the next Barbie…

(The main inspiration for this post came from a story told by Jonah Lehrer in his book: Imagine: How Creativity Works)

image credits: barbie.com

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Forget the Elevator Pitch - it's so 20th century!Jérôme Provensal is a Software Engineer by training and passion, with a MS in Computer Science and IT Systems from Université Pierre et Marie Curie. Born, raised and educated in France, he’s resided in the US (Los Angeles) for 20+ years where he is Director of Software Development for a leading FinTech company and blogs from LightBulbBites.

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