Avoiding the curse of Anti-expertise



Surrounded by them.

Many of them retiring, but some people become dinosaurs long before retirement age and others are in their 80s and 90s and still learning all the time with minds as open as a ten year old's in a game of lasertag.

My friend, Arthur Shelly's fantastic Organisational Zoo metaphor uses a Triceratops card to describe this mindset. But there is more going on here than just becoming a grumpy old employee, set in their ways. Many of these people are deeply talented and knowledgeable. They hold great skillsets and broad expertise in their field. Some may even be called experts and be known as "thought-leaders".

Org Zoo cards showing Triceratops

I call this condition "Anti-expertise".  I'm not talking about the political position that all experts can't be trusted. I call it Anti-expertise because it most often afflicts those that hold considerable expertise and experience. In fact, most people experience it is a consequence of the cognitive heuristics that are used to develop their expertise in the first place. One example is that of satisficing; a decision-making strategy in which the first option that satisfies certain criteria is selected, even if other, better options may exist.

Expertise is way more than a set of skills. It is more than holding certified competencies. Expertise doesn't just know what to do, but also what NOT to do and what to do when things don't work. It speaks to the way things operate and change, how a person makes quick sense of a scenario and then know how to act right, to create value or positive outcomes, not just follow steps or a plan. But the same filters that sort the chaff from the wheat of experiential data seem to naturally go into overdrive with time. Those heuristics, or rules of thumb, calcify into a form of selective blindness. Conclusions are reached before the full nature of this current event are fully understood. Before the one key difference pokes it's head from behind a tree. And it seems to effect us all in various degrees across the different parts of our lives.  Have a read of Gary Klein's book Streetlights and Shadows if this is a new concept to you or you want to learn more about how experts make better decisions.

So what can we do about it? 

Can Anti-expertise be avoided in our organisations and personally?

Well there is the obvious approach of embedding checks and triggers in our operating processes to ensure review of data before key decision points (although this can cause other problems, see Gary's book above). In the Emergency Services, we do this well in our control centers. Various people are assigned to Intelligence, Planning, Communications, etc, and their procedures force a re-reckoning every 12 hours.

But personally, there is a powerful shortcut I have found. I call it "perpetual apprenticing".

As a knowledge manager who manages expertise across large groups of people, I am particularly prone to Anti-expertise myself. I have things I know work and patterns I recognise as causes of certain negative behaviours. I could easily lean on these too much and make assumptions instead of asking questions and running experiments. Years ago I discovered that if I kept myself in the Novice stage of some new skill I was developing, this kept my mind open and intellectually humble, and it leaked into the other areas as well; even those I had been an expert in for years.

Staying in the creative end of it

So the trick for me has been to continually learn a new talent.  Whether it is learning to juggle, play the tin whistle, circular breath on the didgeridoo, paint watercolour, fight fires, learn to play Go, to code or sketch architecture. It really doesn't matter. The bit that seems to inoculate against Anti-expertise is the practice of striving to do something you cannot do well yet

In 2008 I tried my hand at water colour painting. I picked up a few skills and really enjoyed it. But by 2014 I realised I needed to understand perspective and sketching better for my paintings to improve. So I tried sketching in ink. No pencil, no erasing.  Over the last eight years this has become an enjoyable past-time but for me to get the benefits I want, I have to either continually challenge myself or move to a new skill, and sketching seems to have a boundless plain of new challenges within it. You can see one of my original sketches below with my latest one finished yesterday for comparison. There were many styles, steps, books and sketches to master in-between.



So here are my two questions for you?

  • How are you detecting when anti-expertise is impacting you?
  • Secondly, what might you choose to apprentice in to break your mind open again and move yourself from a Triceratops to an Owl?

 Good luck, and may you still be building new expertise way into your old age!

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