Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them.

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 JainNaveen 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:

Naveen Jain
Part of me wants to sign up for his job. Part of me thinks that’d be a good way to get sick. Forbes.com

…[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:

  1. 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.)

  1. 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.


5 thoughts on “Go Find Some Non-Experts. You Probably Need Them.”

  1. Many years ago, while in grad school, I took a class in population geography. As I studied mobility it dawned on me that the theories of population migration provided outstanding models for understanding some of my own research into why businesses might choose to relocate. This “aha moment” stuck with me. Solutions can come from anywhere, but we have to have our eyes open and know how to make the connections.

    We also need to continue our learning, not just in our own field and not just to learn new technology, but in everything. During the years I practiced economic development I tried to keep myself on top of things with a simple practice. Never do the same thing twice the same way. As a consultant I continue to do that, as I believe you do as well. We both have seen too many consultants who engage in “search and replace” planning, simply changing words in a report.

    As I get older I have also found it useful to look outside of my usual crowd. This usually means looking to learn from young people or those who have broken away from the pack. An example is the global coworking unconference, where (though not yet fifty) I am still among the oldest people in the room. But the energy there is electric, with a couple hundred bright innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world coming together to share ideas.

    OK Della, you did it again, giving me a great post to get my brain going this morning. Now, what can I do differently today?

    1. “Solutions can come from anywhere, but we have to have our eyes open and know how to make the connections. ”

      Beautifully said, Michael! Thanks!

      I saw the article you did for IEDC on the coworking conference. That did look pretty awesome. How did you get hooked in with that? I’m trying to figure out how to start doing conference type things outside the usual suspects myself.

  2. This article could have been subtitled: “Are we surprised that an architect’s solution to a crowded facility is only a bigger facility?”

    As a professional consultant (alas, only 16 years of combined experience), who is also a taxpayer, this point is not only well-taken, but a cornerstone of my upcoming campaign for Supervisor of my municipality. Elected officials at all levels rely almost soley on professional consultants. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that, at least here in PA, USA, Professional Services are exempt from bidding laws. This adds inflated prices and removes peer oversight to the problem of biased solutions: good work if ya can get it, but an inefficient utilization of my tax dollars.

  3. Interesting read. Many communities look at “citizen participation” as a threatening experience and similar to taking some forms of medication, many would not do it if it wasn’t necessary (or in some cases required by law). The citizenry of most communities is an outstanding source of the “non-expert”. Yes of course there are stages in development where confidentiality is required but during the SWOT, strategy building, community endorsement phase, we all need more eyes on the target and the tools that we think will get us there.

    I always look for the little girl in line watching the emperorer go by in his new clothes. Give me the person that has a small shop in their basement or garage and tinkers. That is the imagination we need and the drive to make existing systems or products work more efficiently. As my grandad used to say–the thing about common sense is that it is not too common.

    Steve–about the architect–an entrepreuner would hire a bouncer, put up a velvet rope and hire friends to stand in line letting the passing public know that it is a desireable place to be. Keep it overcrowded and raise desire to be “there”. 🙂

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