The Expert Newbie
August 20, 2014
This has been a rather complicated post to write. I still feel there are some flaws and that may sound somehow clumsy. Yet, here it is : I have a problem with expertise.
During the 25 years of my professional career, I have changed jobs, mission, specialties and professional activities on a regular basis, every two or three years, often while remaining in the same company and without getting any pay rise.
One reason is that I love discovering new work culture and environment while meeting new co-workers. But I think the most important one is I am afraid of looking like sitting in my comfort zone while patronizing from my expert position.
Experts are seen as the super-heroes of today’s organization and, for one, I don’t buy into that assertion. Quite the opposite, actually : I tend to see expertise culture as an obstacle to setting up a healthy one. Which makes me comfortable being a newbie and becoming expert at it …
Moulding the expert ego
My issue with expertise is embodied by experts behavior. However, and to make it crystal clear, I am not putting the blame on experts as individuals but on the expertise culture that fosters bad habits among experts.
Expertise comes with a strong sense of status and status does not dovetail very smoothly with collaboration. Since enhanced collaboration is one lever to create value, this is a major issue. I have noticed that it is more difficult to collaborate with experts then with non-experts just because of their super tanker sized egos the culture has allowed them to grow. As a supporter for Egoless Knowledge Worker, I have my share of concerns with this population.
More often than not, being important in the organization somehow makes experts feel they don’t have to make any effort in other area, such as collaboration and communication : they are so important, people have to adapt to them. The Brutal Meritocracy Clay Shirky talks about regarding the Linux Development community is a telling example of this uncomfortable quirk of IT experts, for instance. This makes it difficult to move the organization towards a Why culture as opposed to a Who culture when problems happen.
I understand this may sound like shallow generalization : I have collaborated with some great experts which are fantastic people to work with and learn from – my tech mentor Frederic Brunel being one of them. Yet, I am afraid this is not the majority.
Going out of expertise area
A second problematic behavior I have noticed with experts is their reluctance in going into areas where they no longer are experts anymore. This makes sense : as the conversation moves into places out of their area of expertise, i.e out of their comfort zone, they are not interested anymore as they have suddenly lost their status. They either check out or call bullshit at the new topic. I see this as a major issue in a world where the ability of being curious and learning new things is key to survive and to thrive.
I have a rather telling example here. On September 11 I was international expert in airlines booking system. I could basically enjoy very well compensated missions anywhere in the world. As of September 12, I lost my job and my skills became worthless. My comfort zone had collapsed together with the twin towers. So I have accepted to let go this hard won (9 years) expert status and moved to new technologies where I became a newbie again. I had many colleagues who could not make the same step : they’d rather remain expert on a devastated job market then being a newbie on a flourishing one.
The challenge of challenging the experts
The third issues with experts behavior is how defensive they may get when challenged on their very area of expertise. Any such challenge may end up being perceived as a threat to their position. This is an issue I always keep in mind while coaching teams : experts require to be handled with extra care.
Regardless of how deep their knowledge is, there still are some small area they don’t know about and they are not really keen in conceding these knowledge gaps. Edgar Schein defines the relationship to reality and the truth as one of the main deeper assumptions in organization culture : it goes from belief (This is true because I believe it as a manager or an expert) to pragmatism (This is true because I have observed and measured it). Expertise culture tends more towards the belief end and not so much toward the pragmatic one. It ends up making the Lean culture of hypothesis and measure less soluble within such culture.
The Hero Culture
Sometimes expertise culture is so central to the organization that it develops into a hero culture. Hero culture fosters firefighting and hails experts who saves the day. In a way, Hero culture celebrates variability and is not so much concerned about preventing problems from happening in the first place.
I have noticed a few experts discomfort with continuous improvement initiatives, where everyone fix small problems all the time. Firstly because this ends up in drying the source of major problems to solve (and of opportunities to save the day). Secondly because there are more people able to do so.
In the Cardiff University e-book Staying Lean, there is this great illustration of the activities of the typical organization versus the sustainable organization. This depicts rather well the opposition of visions I try to illustrate.
(Click to enlarge)
The risk of being an Expert Newbie
Probably as a way to vaccine myself against all these bad behaviors, I like the idea of always being a newbie, a sort of expert newbie. This brings the excitement of novelty and the fulfillment of learning new things, on a regular basis.Besides, this posture is tightly related with candor, one of the main key to creativity according to Pixar CEO Ed Catmull.
Yet there is a major risk with this strategy, a risk that Matthew Crawford spotted very clearly in Shop class as Soulcraft : the tendency of the knowledge worker to multiply potentialities, knowing roughly how to do many things (and not doing any) rather than doing a limited number of things very well.
This is a risk I try to mitigate by actually delivering things that the customer expects and by being obsessional about the value I contribute on the whole chain. Another way to bring value, is by acting as a connector, sitting at the edge of difference communities while bridging them. This is what I do with the Agile, Lean, Social Business or Change Management communities.
So apart from making my experts friends hating me, what is the point of this whole article, you might rightly ask ?
Well my take away is that you are better off not fostering too much of an expertise culture in your organization. Within such culture, experts make it difficult to collaborate with, are rather reluctant in learning new things and they foster a hero / fire-fighting culture.
Of course experts are important people in a given organization and I am not saying we should get rid of them : we want to prevent the unhealthy quirks of expertise culture. This can be achieved by visibly rewarding fast-learners, people who are used to change activities and who enjoy being taken out of the comfort zone of their expertise area while still delivering perceptible customer value.
What do you think ? Do you also see expertise as an obstacle to a healthy culture ? How do you deal with experts in your organization ? Have you already let go an hard won expertise to move towards other professional shores ? I’d love to hear from you.