Experts are great……. you just have to keep them in their box.

This is something a former boss of mine used to say. I realise it has the potential to upset a few people (particularly experts); please don’t get offended just yet.

This post Is Best Practice the Enemy of Innovation generated a bit of discussion that got me digging deeper into the role of experts in innovation. Here are a few of the things I learned.

It takes hard graft to become an expert. You study, develop your understanding, you practice a lot (an average of 34 months for London Cabbies to get The Knowledge), you learn from failure and keep on working to become more experienced and knowledgeable about what you do. Becoming an expert takes a lot of effort.

Part of the development involves learning about how to identify a situation and then how to respond to it. It is a process of pattern entrainment in the brain which is described in this video by Dave Snowden. In the case of the London Cabbie, they will recognise the patterns of street signs and buildings that will allow them to identify where they are, and where they need to go (amongst 25,000 streets). The same could be said for the experts scanning the contents of suitcases at the airport check in. They know the patterns of what is ‘normal’ amongst the thousands of things people carry onto aeroplanes and can quickly pick up what’s abnormal or different.

From sport I heard Matthew Syed (three times Commonwealth Table Tennis Champion) speak about the same pattern entrainment process in tennis. Expert players will recognise the body patterns of people serving to them. As a result they make predictions and position themselves to receive the ball as it arrives. Someone unable to recognise the ‘patterns’ of the server would take much longer to react, and loose the point.

On an entirely parochial note, I do wonder if this happened in Welsh Rugby? The attacking patterns of our strike runners have been recognised and learnt. Opposing teams now know exactly how to react in defence (maybe it is time for another Shane Williams?)

What happens to experts when things change? If an expert is out of their known problem solving environment, things could get challenging. There is a risk they might apply what they know and force a solution which could have negative consequences. Interestingly, I bet if you took a London Cabbie to Cardiff and asked them to navigate across the city they wouldn’t do it based upon what they know about London; they would seek some local information. I’m not sure that’s the case with all experts who find themselves tackling problems outside of their experience. They quite naturally apply what they know.

So how do experts approach innovation? Given that innovation is about things that are new and different, beyond what you already know, things could be tough for experts. In this video about the discovery of longitude, Dave Snowden says “when the basic structure around you changes expertise can be an inhibiting factor”.

Business Psychologist, Phillipa Davies commented on the previous post that, “‘experts’ defending their status against loss of face can cripple the new and the risky”.

I’d imagine that if the power base you have developed through years of hard graft (your expertise) is under threat, it’s probably a natural response to fight against the new and unknown.

The approach for experts (to avoid being kept in the box) probably needs to be around understanding and willingness. Understanding that being an expert (who are absolutely necessary), may be a barrier to innovation and the willingness to do something about it. Returning to my former boss where this started, he was an expert in several areas (some of them quite obscure). What he did have though was awareness of his limitations in areas outside of his expertise. Shortly after being put in charge of a sensitive, people focused department (definitely not his forte) he said “it’s like putting King Herod in charge of Mothercare, I need some help!”

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Experts are absolutely necessary. The hard graft they put in to achieve their expert position should be recognised and rewarded.
  2. Innovation is about new things that may be unknown to experts. It’s not about doing the old things better.
  3. Experts need to be aware of the potential risks and not force solutions based upon what they know already.

Picture Source:

This is from an interesting post by Doug Blackie who talks about Expert Syndrome. Worth a read for anyone involved in participation, engagement and collaboration projects.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

6 Responses

  1. I can see how experts can get stuck in a box and fall into the trap of thinking that their expertise gives them all the answers. It is important for experts to realise their limitations; to listen to others and to seek input from those with different perspectives or experience (as your boss clearly did). I think the real key is to accept that there is no limit to what we can learn however great our expertise. Personally, I am very glad to have got out of my box (if I was ever in one) and will avoid getting into another one!

  2. Unlike the stereotype, an expert is not an intellectual position, it is a social position. You simply know more about something specific than the people around you.

    You can a recognised expert without much knowledge and unfortunately, in my experience, without necessarily any talent in the subject! Fortunately, expert by virtue of recognised position does work when combined with a bit of knowledge and experience and can be wonderful when all that is combine together with innate ability.

    Trouble is, innate ability rarely looks like the idealised corporate description of someone who’s good at something! Great Blog!

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