Before getting into the specifics of today’s podcast, I want to say hello to all of you who are listening to this podcast somewhere in New England. I grew up in Ipswich, Massachusetts and briefly attended Boston University school of Law. As I record this in the summer of 2015, the Red Sox are buried in last place with little prospect of becoming better this year – and they finished in last place last year.
The subject of today’s podcast is not one you will find in any innovation books, podcasts or articles that I’ve ever read or heard. Despite this fact, there is a curse of being an expert that works powerfully to inhibit innovation, especially when the need is very important and urgent.
Let’s make sure we’re starting in the same place by understanding the meaning of the word expert. When used as a noun, the dictionary defines expert as “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge or skill in a particular area.” When used as an adjective the definition is “having or involving authoritative knowledge.”
When you ask someone if they are an expert, they will answer depending upon their level of humility. Those who are egocentric will quickly acknowledge that they are an expert in one or more particular subjects. Those who have a higher level of humility might not describe themselves as experts but acknowledged that the no quite a bit about a particular subject.
So how does someone considering themselves to be an expert or believing that they know a lot about a particular subject impact innovation results?
Since I have been facilitating creative sessions for many years, I have seen the negative impact of someone considering themselves to be an expert. Most often I see the impact when one person suggests an innovative idea and the other expert person immediately jumps in to provide their point of view. In expressing their point of view a often expressed that they are experts. Their expressions often criticize the idea or suggest it has a very low chance of being successful. This is often because the suggested innovative idea is outside the box of their expertise.
There are a few factors to be aware of here.
If asked, experts would tell you they are well-intentioned. They want others to benefit from their expertise. But looked at another way, they want to be right and to control the direction of innovation. Unfortunately, other people in a creative session might defer to the stated expertise. When this happens, all VA or goes out of the creative balloon.
Experts do not know what they do not know. They can be threatened by what they don’t know because it could undermine their position as an expert. It becomes about protecting their ego and image. Most experts are loath to say “I don’t know” or “I have never heard of that before.”
Experts can create to dysfunctional behavior in groups. Others can see the kind of behavior I have described as arrogance, controlling, and disrespectful. On the other hand, experts can view their fellow group members as naïve and poorly informed.
But briefly take a closer look at what being an expert in expertise is all about. There are at least two perspectives.
The first perspective is how much a person knows compared to other people in their field, like marketing, sales, research, product development and many more. Indeed a person who considers themselves to be an expert may have considerable more knowledge and experience than many or most of their peers and colleagues in a particular field. So the first perspective is a benchmark of how much knowledge and experience the person has compared to peers and colleagues.
The second perspective is how much a person knows about all that is known in a particular field. For example, let’s consider someone who considers themselves to be an expert in customer research. Peers and colleagues might readily acknowledge this person to have greater knowledge and experience than they do, maybe even by a wide margin. But when you compare how much knowledge and experience the same person has compared to everything that can be known and experienced in the field of consumer research, they might have a very low percentage of total knowledge and experience.
Let me illustrate this point by using myself as an example.
Many people consider me to be an expert in marketing. There is a basis for people believing this. I worked at Procter & Gamble for 16 years in sales and marketing and the company was voted marketing company of the century by its peers in the year 2000. I was vice president of marketing at the Gallo Winery for 10 years. As a professor at Arizona State University in the school of management I taught upper-level marketing courses. Because of all this, for many years I did consider myself to be an expert. This consideration was from the first perspective only – my level of knowledge and experience compared to other people both in marketing and more generally in business.
Then one day, for some reason, I decided to search Amazon for how many books on marketing they had. They have well over 500,000 books on marketing. I perused many of the titles and found that they were covering topics that in many cases I knew little or nothing about. I then did some Google searches on marketing topics. Again, I discovered a vast world of marketing knowledge and experience that went way beyond my personal knowledge and experience. I came away from this process deeply impressed by how much I did not know.
Let me try and put some order of magnitude numbers on this to make it a little bit clearer. First, from the perspective of my marketing expertise compared to peers and colleagues, in any particular situation I probably had 50% – 75% more expertise, that is knowledge and experience than these peers and colleagues. Second, from the perspective of how much I knew about marketing compared to all that there was to be known about marketing knowledge and experience, I probably had 5% – 10% knowledge of everything that was to be known about marketing. The difference between 50% – 75% and 5% – 10% is dramatic.
I repeated this process in a few other areas of my life where I thought I had a pretty good level of expertise. At the conclusion of this process, I came away deeply, deeply impressed by my ignorance. I realized that there was a sort of curse to be an expert. That curse was arrogance that limited openness to new thinking and diminished innovation possibilities.
Instead of feeling diminished in any way, I felt exhilarated. I’m a reasonably good learner. I now had a major opportunity to enjoy the thrill of learning new things and finding ways to productively and beneficially use my new knowledge and experience in my life. I quickly became a learning junkie, which I continue to this day.
For those of you that have listened to previous podcasts on quantum idea generation, you are aware of the power of diversity. I also made a very strong point about bringing diverse expertise into a creative session. So yes, I love experts and I love to have them part of the creative session.
Here are a couple of thoughts for your consideration about how to manage a creative session that includes significant levels of expertise.
Respect as a two-way street: in the early stages of a creative session have people talk about themselves and expectations for the session. As a facilitator, look for opportunities to celebrate the accomplishment of experts, especially when you have multiple experts in the same or similar field. You want people to know that there are multiple experts, not only one or two. The street also goes the other way. For people in the session who do not have the same or even significant levels of knowledge and experience in a field, you want to celebrate them also. You celebrate the possibility of fresh thinking – people who see things in their more essential state of being, who see things in simpler terms where experts might only see the more complicated view. Net, you want to celebrate expertise and, if you will, lack of expertise. In our creative sessions we always look to include both of these dimensions.
Help people understand why out-of-the-box thinking is so important and yet so difficult. It is natural for people to create new ideas that will fit into their box of knowledge and experience. On this point, history is very clear – the really big ideas exist outside the box. To get these ideas, experts need to let go of preconceptions that say the future is going to be very similar to the past and present, which is where they are comfortable inside the box. Making this point starts giving experts the permission to entertain new possibilities. During the course of the session when you reward these new possibilities with praise, the creative juices continue to flow. At the end of the day, you can harvest a good number of out-of-the-box ideas with high potential for success.
As I mentioned at the start of this subject, you will not find many if any other people in the field of innovation mentioning the curse of being an expert. Yet, it is a very real factor you need to address if you’re creative sessions are going to get the truly big ideas. I hope this has helped you to see this dynamic and how you might manage it in your own creative sessions.