When you have more than a few years under your belt in your career, it’s comforting to think, or at least to tell yourself, that you have this down pat. That you know, definitively, how to do the work, deliver the solutions, that your profession requires. That you’ve got the answers. You’re the Expert.
The problem for most of us is that our expert-ness was developed in, and set up around, a world that looks less and less like the one that we’re actually living in. We not only work differently, but we think and decide and communicate in ways that we would not have imagined when we started our careers 10 or 20 or 40 years ago.
That’s not just a problem for people whose skills revolved around WordPerfect or COBOL. It’s a problem for mature professionals of every stripe, because the deepest change isn’t in technology, it’s in the fundamental assumptions underpinning our work.
Here’s an example of those fundamental underpinnings: in my profession as an urban planner, we were taught to base land use plans (the documents that guide zoning decisions and where to build roads and the like) on a linear extrapolation of a community’s historic growth. If a typical suburban town’s population had grown an average of 2% per year for the last 15 years, you would project its population in 20 years as having grown by 2%, compounded annually. Pretty simple spreadsheet math.
That all worked reasonably well if you assume that the basic structures of life and community in 20 years will be about the same as it had been in the past 10. But what if
- Gas prices triple?
- Fast internet makes online shopping easier than going to a store?
- Catastrophic floods happen more often?
- Newer generations don’t want the kind of housing you have, and the next town over has more of what they want?
We didn’t anticipate these kinds of changes, certainly not in any kind of systematic, rigorous manner. We didn’t challenge our own assumptions, or those of the elected officials and citizens we were working with. We assumed that the future would look basically like a variation of the past. Especially when that past had been good to us.
From where I sit, it’s clear that responsibility for tax crunches, acres of vacant retail, bitter gentrification fights, massive inequity and increasing costs of environmental catastrophes lay in part at the feet of “experienced” planners like me. We didn’t pay enough attention to how the future might be different from the past. We didn’t consider the implications of changes that were already rumbling. And we deferred to the people who insisted on a stable future model, and didn’t always hear the people who raised concerns. We didn’t make our plans to account for uncertainty, flexibility, unanticipated consequences. We didn’t design for resilience, environmental or social.
I’m as guilty of that as anyone.
The only difference in making these mistakes in urban planning versus your business is that planners can see the impacts of the choices we helped form all around us. We work in one of the most complex fields you can imagine — the ecosystem of people — and we often lack the scientific rigor, the clarity, the predictability, of a hard science like chemistry. And we’re often not the only decision maker, and usually not in ourselves the most powerful one. But we only have to drive down a street with an objective eye to see the impacts of the decisions we helped create.
Your profession is much the same. You have assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. You know what the past looked like, and it’s easy and comfortable to assume that the future will look like a version of the same.
Sometimes that means that we look at changes unfolding around us and we don’t actually see them for what they are. Sometimes that means that we insist that those changes don’t impact us and our field of work. Sometimes that means that we don’t know what to do with the new things, even when we understand their potential implications, and we shy away, Better the devil you know, as my mother said.
In a moment in time where the future doesn’t look much like the past, “expertness” can be a liability, a millstone around our neck. It can prevent us from finding the right solution.
And experts in any field I have seen aren’t good at giving non-experts a meaningful voice in the process. Experts look down on the non-experts, dismiss their concerns, relegate their input to “user insight” or “feedback.”
But it’s becoming clear that this isn’t going to work for much longer. Deference to an expert looks more and more like an outdated Victorian norm, like wearing a bustle.
One of the core values emerging in the Fusion Age economy is that power becomes decentralized because of exploded information and communication access. When high school students learn how to conduct a political campaign through Google, when two men in rural India can use a smart phone to become a media presence, when new products can be funded in ten dollar increments by people across the world, then experts are no longer the gatekeepers of information, or processes, or solutions.
We talk about disruption in industries a lot in these early years of the new era. We watch media, retail, manufacturing, politics undergo upheavals. Blue chip icons lose their central position, new players proliferate, changes in basic operations send shock waves through the lives and employment of thousands.
Our area of expertise is probably one of the next in line.
Innovation gurus like to tell professionals and companies to “disrupt themselves.” And they may show us new ways to use Post-It notes and whiteboards. But what they really need to teach us, all of us, can be summed up very simply:
- Our expertise can be our biggest enemy, because it can shape our direction without us knowing it through the unexamined assumptions we have developed. We need to learn to see those assumptions, even when they’re hiding in the back of our heads, and learn to question them. All the time.
- Our best hope of breaking the hold that our expertise has on us comes from working with as many and as varied non-experts as we can get. And “working with” means working with — not listening and then discarding, not relegating to the corner, but putting them at the center of the process.
- That does NOT, however, mean that we just do whatever they say. In the Fusion Era, the knowledge and insight that we used to call expertise has a critically important role: we become the facilitator of these new solutions. We former experts are the ones responsible for asking the right questions, guiding the conversations, making sure participants have the best available information. We have to use our knowledge and depth to call attention to the risks that unintended consequences pose. And most importantly, it is our job to shepherd the participants to the best solution that we can develop, together.
Disrupting ourselves like this is hard work. It requires a putting-aside, not only of ego and sense of our own importance, but also of much of our deep-rooted assumptions about how we should work. It’s shockingly, unnervingly easy to shift into the old mode of speech or behavior, even when we think in our heads that we are operating in the new model. I’ve done that more times than I care to admit.
We have to learn this new approach like we learned any new skill, back in the days when we were learning new skills all the time: by careful practice, by intentional repetition. Despite what some of us were taught, it turns out that we are perfectly capable of learning new skills — we just need to do the practice that allows our brains to rewire.
And if you don’t want to? I understand and I sympathize, but let’s be practical: we’re not going to have much choice. Unless we’re ready to hang it up now, the Fusion Age isn’t going to wait for us to get comfortable.