Byron's Babbles

Arguing With A Specialist

Posted in Educational Leadership, Experts, Explorer, Global Leadership, Leadership, Leadership Development by Dr. Byron L. Ernest on January 2, 2022

The trigger for this post was a quote from Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. Here’s the quote: “I learned a long time ago not to argue with specialist. But, history has a long line of specialists.” I have never liked the terms specialist and expert. Those are both relative terms. Both expertise and specialized should be viewed as processes instead of something you can achieve. If we keep doing something long enough, we’re bound to keep improving. Where I get worried is when we quit arguing with the experts and specialists. Actually, I was amazed as I went back through past blog posts how many times I have touched on this subject.

If we shift to a position of expertise and specializing as a process, we keep learning. Our mindset shifts to: I’m here to learn. Most of the people I know and respect who are considered experts and specialists are continuously learning, reading, practicing, trying. Each one of them is striving towards expertise. Anyone who calls themselves an expert is no expert. We need to be very careful of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Overestimating or underestimating our ability can both be disastrous. In one of my top five reads in 2021, Alien Thinking: The Unconventional Path To Breakthrough Ideas, we were reminded to “Approach things not as an expert, but as an explorer.” I’ve always been a critic of so called experts and this was a warning of the problem of acting like an expert. Authors Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade also posited that expert status can serve as blinders keeping us from exploring for the next way of doing what we are doing well now better or differently. I blogged about this in Be An Explorer, Not An Expert.

Let us not forget that expertise and specialization is a never-ending process where we keep striving to be better. Keep questioning and exploring for better ways.


Be An Explorer, Not An Expert

I am so glad I read the book, Alien Thinking: The Unconventional Path To Breakthrough Ideas. This book helped me further hone the alien that has always been in me for wild and creative thinking and innovation. In the book, authors Cyril Bouquet, Jean-Louis Barsoux, and Michael Wade presented an incredible framework using ALIEN as an acronym. I highlighted the framework in What Will You Regret When You Are 80 Years Old? Another comment the authors made in the book that caused me to do further thinking was that we need to “Approach things not as an expert, but as an explorer.” I’ve always been a critic of so called experts and this was a warning of the problem of acting like an expert.

The problem of overconfidence and closed-mindedness in areas we believe we have expertise is all the more troubling because we so generally tend to credit ourselves and many times others with having more expertise than we really do. In Alien Thinking we were taught that discoverers know what they are looking for and then go out and find it, but explorers take chances by creating new things, and looking for what they don’t even know is there. The expert status can serve as blinders keeping us from exploring for the next way of doing what we are doing well now better or differently.

Those that know me well know that I love intersectional learning and learning from outside my own industry. Bouquet et al. argued there is great value in this as well. They posited that “Leaders thus need to think like explorers, become more adventurous and steal the essence of ideas from outside their industries…” Taking an expert frame of reference keeps us from looking for what is next. We need to be looking at industries outside our own and “stealing” ideas. I believe this is an issue particularly in education. There is not enough exploration happening in other industries to learn how to best educate. We can rely on our “outsider status” and being “adjacent outsiders” to learn and discover from others.

Deep Innovation

As a self proclaimed energetic change agent, I had a great chance to check my values and views toward innovation while reading the awesome book, Innovation For The Fatigued: How To Build A Culture Of Deep Creativity by Alf Rehn. Rehn argued that we have become “shallow innovators” and need to start practicing “deep innovation.” One problem is we start using the same old rhetoric that makes us think we are “maverick innovators,” being “transformative,” or practicing “disruptive thinking.” We think these buzzwordy titles mean we are innovating, but really we are merely tinkering around the edges and making superficial changes. See why I gave this book ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️?

“Innovation has become a tired buzzword.” ~ Alf Rehn

According to Rehn, we need to focus on big solutions. In order to have deep innovation we need to start from scratch, or go in an entirely different direction. Real innovation, Rehn posited, looks beyond what we do and know now. One of my big takeaways was that we need to stop directing so much time and talent on incremental change. Many times we take the easy way out and make ourselves feel better, saying we are taking baby steps.

“Innovation history teaches us that human beings are terrible at identifying innovative ideas.” ~ Alf Rehn (p. 54)

Another part of the book that really jumped out at me was the section entitled “The Curse of Expertise” (p. 54). I have always worried about getting caught up listening to so called “experts.” In fact, I have blogged about my dislike of experts many times in Thanks For Not Being An Expert, Decision Making vs Problem Solving – and Why the Difference Matters, and Dig In & Stop Guessing. Rehn explained that many great ideas have been killed before they had a chance to prove themselves by these so called “experts.” Rehn said, “As curious as it sounds, the better we are at something and the more expertise we’ve amassed, the worse we often get” (p. 55). It is not that experts are bad, but we just should not rely on their word as the final word. Experts often forget that their expertise represents a very small part of the world’s total wealth of knowledge. We have a tendency to overestimate what experts know and want to use their opinions carte blanche. I see this happen a lot in policy decisions.

Finally, Rehn advised us to cultivate a culture of innovation. We need a certain amount of trust and an environment where we are able to voice our ideas or opinions without fear of censure or dismissal. This is what Amy Edmondson coined as “Psychological Safety.” If we lack an innovative culture we will only practice “shallow innovation” instead of “deep innovation.” This will then eat away at our organization’s purpose, according to Rehn. The loss of purpose will ruin an organization and affect employees at every pay grade of an organization.

So, let’s create a culture of innovation so we can practice “deep innovation” and change the world!