Escape the Experts

One of the staples of teaching in law schools is what’s known as the Socratic method. Professors teach by posing questions. They don’t just list off bullets from power points. They don’t lead by lecturing. They assign a reading and then pepper students with questions during class time. But they aren’t posing question after question to the class waiting for different people to respond. Instead, one person is subjected to squirming in their seat while enduring what seems like a never ending stream of questions on a subject. It is a markedly different approach than what most of our learning will have been in our time before law school. Because it is so different it spurs anxiety amongst new law students. Most of us are used to being passive consumers of information. We sit and wait to be taught. We participate in discussion if we choose to. We’re not picked out and pursued with a barrage of questions. The Socratic method singles out one or two students to be the focus of the professor’s attention. The balance of the class is partly relieved that they haven’t been chosen yet also fearful that the conversation can turn from the student under the gun to themselves at any time. This keeps their attention on point and heightens learning.

In a first year class on criminal law I had the dubious distinction of being selected by our professor in the early weeks of the course. We had been assigned some reading. Typically, a case or two is provided which students are expected to read. As the professor picks a student to question, whether the student has read the case or not becomes readily apparent to all. In my case, I had read the materials. The professor first asked me to summarize the facts of one of the cases that had been assigned for reading. In my zeal to prove that I had read thoroughly the case I offered as much detail as I could. He noted, sarcastically, that my summary was longer than the judge’s decision in the case. Perhaps, we could work on being a bit more concise. He poked and prodded with hopes to help narrow down what the meat of the matter was. I fumbled forward recognizing that reading and understanding were two very different things. He continued to chop away for the better part of the class. As class ended and we were packing up our books to move on to the next lecture, a couple of students nearby tried to offer some “support” with quips like: Wow, Professor Pringle really put the boots to you there, didn’t he?” “Man, that must have been tough.” “Professor sure did chew you up and spit you out.” I thought, sure, I didn’t have perfect answers for all of his questions, but isn’t that the point? Aren’t we here to learn? Moreover, isn’t the professor supposed to know much more than us? He has been reading and preparing questions on this case for twenty years. I had read it for twenty minutes. Of course, he was supposed to be in a world of his own knowing far more than I could. Additionally, what’s the real value in having read the same case 100 times? Professors may be teaching the same material from the same textbooks year after year after year. Is that same experience year over year really that valuable?

The experience got me thinking about what an expert is. Is it credentials? Is it the number of letters after a name, the certificates on the wall? Is it the time in the industry? Is it both or something else? How does one becomes an expert in the first place? We have several designations that we can earn by performing objective tasks. For example, to become a lawyer, an MD, a CPA, or to earn the Gold Seal Certification (GSC) in construction, there are clear, objective steps and standards one must complete in order to achieve one of these outcomes. Our credibility will follow from earning a specific accreditation. However, what does one do to become considered an expert on the issue of the day? Who is assigning the status of expert? Sometimes it seems that an expert is simply someone that can articulate and advocate something about which we agree. Sometimes, the expert is simply the one with the megaphone. That is, we consider someone an expert based on their perspective on an issue more than their background.

Regardless of what it is, are there costs to being an expert? Can one know too much for their own good on a subject? An expert may be someone that has deep knowledge over a narrow domain. Their knowledge has likely come as a result of many years of experience in that field. Their understanding follows both education and experience. Inherent in this deep knowledge is that it is all based on the field as it is. A downside to domain expertise is that to an expert, their expertise becomes the sole lens through which they view the world. As has been said, to a carpenter all problems require a hammer. To a surgeon, all ailments can be solved by a scalpel. Our intellectual background fuels biases that lead us to look at only what we know. Experts may have mental myopia or a form of tunnel vision. They see only what is within the four walls of their industry. Expertise is seen as the ability to define the boundary of knowledge within a domain. The experts define the box in which they put themselves and others in the industry. But the box in which we put ourselves is just a tiny portion of the world at large. Yet, our world is increasingly interconnected. A ripple here can send waves there. Those rich in domain knowledge in a given area can’t possibly foresee the impact a change in their area may have across any number of interconnected or tangential domains. Separately, we afford experts undue credit. We see hard won wisdom in a given area as being transferable to other areas. Because they are knowledgeable or have been successful in domain x, we seek their opinion in the arena of y and z. This is the transferability bias. We see this more and more where those that have earned credibility in entertainment or athletics are invited to opine about deep, complex issues over which they have no experience. Their opinions on these other subjects are no more (arguably even less) valuable than the perspectives offered by the rest of us. Just because someone is a great actor, for example, doesn’t qualify them on being an expert on a global issue like climate change.

An expert’s understanding may include a history of the domain and how things have come to be as they are. Independent from the extent of their knowledge of the field as it is, are they better equipped to see the future than the rest of us? Could it be that industry experts may even be worse at projecting into the future than those with less experience viewing things from a different perspective? Experts become experts by knowing more about their field than others. Their skill lies in the depth of what they know about the way things are. Those in the know become wedded to what they know. They are invested in the status quo. Their expertise is the result of current beliefs and systems of understanding. This can create walls around being willing to consider contrarian perspectives. They have a deep understanding and appreciation for the standards of an industry. Their status in the domain is based on the existing structure. Experts are prone to succumbing to the status quo bias. Experts don’t just believe in the way things are, they are invested in them being that way. Experts are more likely to be absolutely, resolutely, committed to the status quo. Deep down they want to preserve their position as an expert on the way things are.

Industry standards are also referred to as norms. Norms are simply what normal or expected behavior is. We have norms in our families, our schools, our communities, and our businesses. Adhering to norms ensures that you’re normal. You’ll fit in. Fitting in may be fine. Listening to experts may help you accomplish this. However, consider that our industry standards may be serving as invisible fences. Our norms are creating roofs under which we’ve accepted our place. Paul Rulkens, is a former chemical engineer that has moved into the field of high performance. He works with individuals and organizations intent on improvement. In a 2014 TED talk that has had well over 5,000,000 views, Rulkens offers a story of Albert Einstein teaching a class in 1942. A graduate student helping Einstein administer a Physics exam notices the test Einstein offering as containing the exact same questions as the prior year for the same students. Concerned, the student asks Einstein if he realizes the questions on the test are the same to which Einstein responds, yes the questions are the same, but the answers are different. Our experts exist in a world where they know the answers to an industry’s questions. However, as time marches on, the answers to the same questions may well become different. In The Business of Belief, Tom Asacker writes ““The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Clever kid. “Perhaps,” I replied. “But isn’t it also insane to do the same thing over and over and expect the same results?” She was dumbfounded. I was being quite sincere. What happens to experts and most other comfortable people? We end up making the conscious unconscious. Our beliefs become fossilized and seduce us to continue “our ways.” Our existing knowledge and situation dulls our senses to the reality of the changing world. Our minds become protected by layers of fat we call experience.”

As we learned in Two Titan Takeaways, wisdom is recognition that the world of what we don’t know is far, far, far larger than that of what we do know. We live in a complex world full of uncertainty. We can’t possibly develop an in-depth level of knowledge across domains. Experts invested in today aren’t searching for tomorrow’s solutions. Adam Grant writes in his book, Think Again, “Organizational learning should be an ongoing activity, but best practices imply it has reached an endpoint.” The barriers of our industry’s benchmarks serve as limiters governing our progress. As soon as something is known as a “Best Practice,” it’s become the status quo. When we set something in stone, things become calcified. Now, this is the way we do things around here. We’re no longer or less likely to be looking for continuous improvements. We become pursuers of policy. Having “best practices” and clear processes for activities is good, but we should be continuously reviewing things and asking for input. Keep a separate process in place to actively search for better ways forward to stay away from becoming stagnant. Don’t let Best Practices become Brick Walls. Our standards and norms reflect the way we do things. “Everybody does things this way.” We do what others do in order to get what others have. Professors are experts in their own right. Business schools are littered with lectures espousing Generally Accepted Management Principles. However, if we consume only GAMPs we may end up with cramps. If we’re fighting to fit in, it’s impossible for us to win because we’ll become invisible to others.

What are staple management practices that could use a thrashing? Success in business is about differentiating yourself in the eyes of customers. Innovation comes from being willing to stand out. The Evolution of Excellence Cycle tells us that we can’t outperform while conforming. Yes, we want to look at and learn from others within our industry. Though, at some point, you’ve got to leap. You’ve got to step away from the herd in order to be heard. In other words, as Rulkens puts it, the majority in most industries are likely to be wrong over the long term. To be great, we must innovate. To innovate, we must do things differently than our industry standard. We must escape our experts. To breakout, you must first break industry standards. When it comes to high performance, the majority is always wrong. If we want high performance, we must run from the rhetoric of experts. If we desire to differentiate, we must be willing to do what others won’t (W2D WOW). If you’re uncomfortable, if it feels like you’re stepping out on a limb, if it feels too risky, you’re on the right track. Good.