We have this deep-seated desire to believe that experts can hand us answers. We spend huge sums on consultants (the ones who claim to have 937 years of combined experience) in the hope that they will lead us to some promised land — or at least, figure out for us a palatable solution to the tough issues that our communities are facing.
And then we find out, sometimes a generation later, that they sold us snake oil, or that their answers created unintended consequences that chew away at our communities’ strength.
There are an increasing number of voices that are challenging the assumption that past experience correlates to ability to solve current problems — especially those problems that are, as the academics put it, discontinuous — fundamentally different from what has happened before. In that setting, relying on experience can hobble, rather than help.
One person who has written about this recently is Naveen Jain. Naveen can claim pretty decent cred on this topic — he has founded multiple tech firms, he’s a trustee of the X Prize Foundations…. when it comes to innovative problem-solving for complex issues, this guy knows his stuff. Here’s what he wrote recently in Forbes — I’m excerpting heavily, but do go read the whole column later:
…[P}eople who will come up with creative solutions to solve the world’s biggest problems…will NOT be experts in their fields. The real disruptors will be those individuals who are not steeped in one industry of choice, with those coveted 10,000 hours of experience, but instead, individuals who approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities….
Experts, far too often, engage in a kind of myopic thinking. Those who are down in the weeds are likely to miss the big picture. To my mind, an expert is in danger of becoming a robot, toiling ceaselessly toward a goal but not always seeing how to connect the dots.
The human brain, or more specifically the neo-cortex, is designed to recognize patterns and draw conclusions from them. Experts are able to identify such patterns related to a specific problem relevant to their area of knowledge. But because non-experts lack that base of knowledge, they are forced to rely more on their brain’s ability for abstraction, rather than specificity. This abstraction — the ability to take away or remove characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics — is what presents an opportunity for creative solutions.
I also believe that the value of expertise is diminished in a world dominated by two trends: the accelerating pace of innovation and the ubiquity of information….The digital revolution has also meant a revolution in access to information. This puts more power and knowledge into the hands of non-experts… Granted, they alone don-t make us experts — but they give us access to information in abundance, giving us a greater base from which to “think big.”
Two implications for those of us who work with communities:
- Once we realize what Naveen is telling us, and realize that our communities are in a moment where they desperately need what the business world calls “discontinuous innovation,” the questions that we have to ask any consultant we are considering to work on our communities undergoes a sea change. A large number of years of experience might be a liability, rather than an asset, if it means they will stick with the tried-and-true that may not work anymore, or may not work for your community. Crowing over success in an project somewhere else might obligate you to probe the consultant’s ability to pivot — can they shift away from the method they used before if it doesn’t fit here?
Intellectual flexibility, the ability to tap that power of abstraction and connect those dots, rather than start doing the Robot, may be the most important skill they can bring to the table. (As a consultant with more years under my belt than I’d like to admit, you think writing that doesn’t make me squirm a little bit? Ha.)
- The good news is that we have an enormous supply of non-experts who can “approach challenges with a clean lens, bringing together diverse experiences, knowledge and opportunities.” We call them the Public. They know stuff. They’ve done stuff. They have the power of abstraction that those of us in the weeds struggle to grasp. We have to set them up to succeed, but if we do, they might, just might, present our best opportunity for the discontinuous innovation that we need. After all, us experts haven’t solved the problems yet.
Maybe it’s time to bring in the real experts.