The Expertise Trap

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This article is directed toward leaders—leaders of companies, leaders of teams, leaders of communities and leaders of countries.

I want to talk to you about your brilliance, your expertise and why it is a problem—a huge one, both for you and for the people you are trying to lead.

Let me come at it this way. There is a saying in the south: “You can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar.” I learned this saying when my buddy Todd Murphy—a gentleman from Alabama—wanted to point out that no matter how brilliant I thought I was being during a conversation we were having, I was actually being an idiot.

Todd knew I thought I was brilliant because I was being stubborn, argumentative and black and white—all while speaking declaratively about what should have been a debatable topic. (Which topic doesn’t matter; it was in an area I am supposed to know a lot about.)

Apparently, southern gentlemen don’t tell you to get your head out of your butt when you are being an idiot. Instead, they say clever things like, “Mike, you can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar. And you are in the jar, my friend!” (Just another reason to love the south. Roll Tide. Go Dawgs. War Eagle!)

This saying has since become one of my favorites because it characterizes what often happens to experts: Our brilliance gets in our way. Brilliance keeps us from being curious, creative and sometimes even nice to be around. That’s right. You may be a brilliant jerk. Who knew?

Don’t get me wrong. Our expertise is well-earned. We’ve worked hard to understand an industry, a topic, a profession, a sport, a system…because we want to do the right things and make a difference in the world.

So after years of working at it, we finally become experts. Hallelujah! As experts, we get paid more, trusted more and sometimes even honored more. Our parents are proud, our partners are proud and sometimes even our kids think we’re cool.

And then something happens. Our expertise shows up as polarity. This basically means there is a right way and wrong way to solve the challenge, and we believe our way—the expert’s way—is the right way.

Here’s the first problem. As an expert, you know too much. You know what works and what doesn’t. You know what you can afford and what you can’t. You know the rules. You know what business you are in. You know how it’s always been done. You know why Harry got fired (hint: for trying the same idea that someone has brought up again). You know what the organization will accept and what it will reject. You know how this industry, profession, sport or system works. Period.

There is no middle ground here. There is only black and white. You know the right answer and the absolute outcome because you are an expert.

Unfortunately, this means you are also about to be disrupted by people who don’t know what you do. As an expert, you knew that people will always take traditional cabs; or as a master of the universe, when it came to lodging, you knew that people will always stay in a hotel; or as a retailer expert, you knew that people would always want to try on shoes before they bought them.

Stop Being So “Critical”

Inventive people and cultures are never black and white in their thinking. Instead, they find ways to swim in the gray. This means they support experts who are practiced and well-versed at being both critical and lateral thinkers.

Let me explain.

Put simply, critical thinking means moving to solve a problem by following a straight path to its most logical solution. In other words, the executives weigh opinions, arguments and potential solutions against the logical criteria for success. They want to win, so they are using their well-earned experience and knowledge to land on the best and therefore winning solution.

“Inside the jar” experts typically fall into the trap of using only critical thinking. This is black-and-white thinking. This is how polarity happens. This is also how experts get punched in the face by a future they simply cannot see coming.

Kids, artists and trained innovators know how to engage in lateral thinking. This means constantly rearranging a problem to see what new angles may be discovered. It means playing with lots of ideas instead of trying to come up with the best one. This type of thinking allows leaders and teams to delay judgment and maintain an open mind as new options, new angles, new ideas and new solutions present themselves. Lateral thinking creates unexpected “eureka” moments. (What if we let everyone turn into a cab driver using his or her own car?)

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