Why are simple instructions so hard to follow?



It’s time to face the cold, hard truth. You are terrible at giving actionable, simple instructions. That is, if you have any real expertise to speak of. Have you ever caught yourself harboring secret thoughts about a colleague or trainee that sounded something like, “I don’t understand why he can’t follow even the simplest instructions. Is he intentionally trying to be dense just to make my life miserable?”

The problem is, it’s not them. It’s you.

After I finished graduate school, I accepted a fellowship to spend a year working for a nonprofit that provides job skills training to low-income young adults. The youths who were in the program could choose between one of two tracks to study: IT or finance. The curriculum was very hands-on and not for the faint of heart. Every young adult who went through the program was placed in an internship in their chosen field, so they had to be fairly work ready after just six months of classroom training.

The program put a strong emphasis on making sure that the hard skills the youths were learning were supplemented with the soft skills they needed to succeed in the workplace. That year taught me a whole lot about what it takes to motivate others to act, and it also taught me a lot about how bad I was setting other people up to succeed.

The Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Challenge

Since many of the students in the program were going on to work at an IT help desk, it was really important for them to be good at walking someone else through an unfamiliar process, and they had to do it calmly and professionally. One of the primary challenges that would come up for the youths, especially as they developed more and more expertise in their chosen field, was a sense of frustration.

They’d be on the phone getting screamed at by an angry coworker who couldn’t seem to comprehend why they had to turn off their computer and restart it to fix the problem. A typical conversation would go something like this:

“Ma’am, I know it’s frustrating, but you’ll need to power cycle your machine. So what I’d like you to do is go ahead and save any work you’re doing-”

“Powerwhat? No, I need a different solution. I  just need this to work. I have a presentation to the Board of Directors in seven minutes and I can’t just turn my computer off and walk away.”

“I understand. I can help you fix the issue but I need you to restart your machine.”

“Seriously? Why do we have to buy such crappy computers? Profits were up 10% last year and I’m still stuck with this $%^& machine that won’t even project or run a remote clicker. Please put in a purchase order for a new computer for me.”

“I don’t think the computer you have is broken, Ma’am. If you could just-”

“Fine. I’ll shut down the stupid machine. I’m going to be five minutes late now anyways. When can I come by the help desk and pick it up?”

After one of these conversations, the student would get really demoralized, and then they’d get angry. Why wouldn’t she just restart her computer? How else did she think the software was going to finish installing? And more importantly, why didn’t she try that twenty minutes ago when she still could have been on time, with a working presentation? 

When the students were beginning to feel that way, it was time for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich challenge.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich challenge was designed to help the students understand exactly how easy it is to give incomplete, unhelpful, or confusing instructions and not even know you’re doing it. 

The activity was very simple, but always had the students erupting into gales of laughter before it was all over. They would start out by assembling one Learning Community of forty students together in a large room. The students would stand in a circle with a folding picnic table at the center. On the table sat a freshly-purchased loaf of bread, a cutting board, a butter knife, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of grape jelly. One of the program advisers would stand at the table ready to take instructions from the group. The objective of the activity was to get the program adviser to successfully make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was, however, one important caveat: the program adviser would do exactly as he or she was told. No more and no less.

The adviser would start by calling on a student and asking that student to give her directions to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Without fail, the student would start out with something like, “Well, you just put the peanut butter and jelly on the bread.” Without missing a beat, the program adviser would pick up both jars and place them on top of the bag of bread.

“Like this?”

The student would giggle nervously at the absurdity of it all and try again.

“No, take the bread out of the bag and put the peanut butter and jelly onto it.”

The program adviser would promptly dump the loaf of bread onto the table and lay the jars of peanut butter and jelly on top.

“Okay! I get it now. What next?”

It would usually take thirty minutes or more for someone to nail the exercise:

1. Untie the twist tie from the bag of bread.

2. Remove two pieces of bread from the bag and place them on the cutting board.

3. Unscrew the lid to the peanut butter jar.

4. Use the sharp end of the knife to scoop up about a tablespoon of peanut butter and drop it onto one of the two pieces of bread…

After the exercise was complete, the program adviser would lead a debrief and talk to the students about what they had learned. It didn’t take the students long at all to get to the punch line.

We all sort of assumed that you’d seen a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before. We assumed you knew what one looked like, and that maybe you had some experience with making sandwiches. We assumed that you had knowledge that you didn’t have

Suddenly, you’d see something go “click,” and the students would begin to understand why Yolanda from Operations was so upset about having to restart her computer. She had no context for what she was doing, and didn’t realize that all she had to do was restart her computer. For all she knew, the restart wasn’t actually a solution – it was just some box that the help desk rep had to check before moving forward with a much longer process. She didn’t know if she was in for a two-minute restart, or if the two-minute restart was just the opening act of a twenty-minute drama that would culminate in someone from IT coming over to her desk, commandeering her computer, and refusing to give it back for a week.

The Curse of Knowledge 

One thing that makes the story above interesting to me is that the students who worked these IT help desk jobs were complete neophytes just a few short months earlier. And yet, they still had a hard time putting themselves into the shoes of the people they had to help. It’s a case-in-point example of a phenomenon that economists call The Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, the Curse of Knowledge makes it essentially impossible for us to remember what it was like not to have known it. As a result, we give instructions that seem perfectly clear to us, but that are nearly inscrutable to anyone who doesn’t have the same knowledge fund or context that we do.

The Curse of Knowledge is one of the main reasons why so many brilliant scientists and researchers are spectacularly awful teachers. Without question, they understand their chosen subject with more depth than just about anyone, but when they take the podium, the audience immediately glazes over, lost in a sea of jargon and technical specificity. It’s not that these brilliant women and men don’t care about sharing their wealth of knowledge with the world, or that they’re engaging in some sort of self-glorifying ego fest by spouting off terminology that would send Albert Einstein running for the hills. It’s that they simply can’t remember what it was like not to know.

Breaking the Curse

Unfortunately, if you’re human, you’re going to fall prey to this cognitive bias. There’s no getting around it. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to improve the way you communicate information and instructions to other people.

Use Concrete Language

One strategy that’s useful for overcoming the impacts of the Curse of Knowledge is to make sure you communicate in simple, concrete language. When you first start using this strategy, it may leave you feeling a little sheepish. It might feel like you’re “dumbing down” your message, or talking to a respected friend or colleague like they’re five. But explaining something complex in language a five year old (okay, maybe a fifth grader) can understand is actually a great approach, because the Curse of Knowledge means that you’re probably vastly overestimating what a five year old would understand anyways.

Give More Context

A set of instructions that might be great for communicating with a colleague who shares your expertise would probably be wholly inadequate for helping a layperson get the job done. That’s because your fellow expert has a great deal more context for the instructions than the layperson does. Providing inadequate context is actually one of the eight fundamental failures of process design, and it’s best remedied by making sure that whomever you’re teaching, training, or helping knows exactly where to look for more background information if they need to lay hands on it.

Get More Feedback

Although we all fall prey to the Curse of Knowledge, since we don’t all have the same knowledge base, we can ferret out our assumptions about what our audience knows by gathering feedback from others about the instructions we’ve created or the material we’ve written. As Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out, this is one of the primary reasons why the writing of experts is inaccessible. Perhaps it’s not as easy as we’d like to stand in someone else’s shoes, but asking for feedback allows someone else to come stand in yours.

Asking for feedback doesn’t just apply to writing prose, either. It applies to all sorts of communication, from training videos and Standard Operating Procedure manuals to classroom instruction. You can make sure you’re getting the type of feedback you’re looking for by specifically asking your collaborator to point out anything that’s unclear. Tell them not to gloss over any language you used that isn’t familiar to them, or leaps of faith they had to make in trying to piece together where you were going.

Another great resource on the Curse of Knowledge if you’d like to dive in deeper is this book.

The Curse of Knowledge makes it a lot harder for us to realize it when our crystal clear instructions actually aren’t as clear as we think they are. So before jumping to the conclusion that your trainee, colleague, or supervisor needs to be watered twice a week from now on, consider that the instructions you’re giving might be part of the problem. Ask what wasn’t clear. Get feedback about how you can make your explanation better in the future. Use concrete language. Make sure that you’ve given enough background information and context to set the other person up for success. And when all else fails, be generous. It’s the least you can do. After all, you are an expert.

Dive in in the comments below. Where have you seen the Curse of Knowledge show up in your life?

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