Is Your Expert Worth The Money?

“Hi, my name’s Judy and I’m the greatest living expert in X-Ray Listening. Have you ever wondered about what you’d discover if you could hear what went on inside people’s heads when they met you? Have you ever been curious about their hopes, dreams and fears – and how they relate to you?…”

It’s scarily easy to fall into the trap of acting like the “greatest living expert”. I first learned the trick from a public-speaking trainer Kevin Cherry – in a few minutes I discovered I could sound pretty convincing on subjects I knew nothing at all about.

But it feels like I’ve been trying to lose the habit ever since. Because I’m not an expert – or at least, I’m an an expert in making stuff happen where subject-matter experts aren’t useful.

Here’s the thing. There are some times in life when what you need is the greatest living expert. And there are others when expertise isn’t helpful – or may be positively un-helpful.

Spotting An Expert Opportunity

How can you know which is which? It’s an important question – particularly if you’re trying to solve a business or personal problem.

Out there on the web, loads of experts say they can help, for a fee. But are they worth the money?

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework is an excellent way to define which situation is which.

  • Experts are superfluous in obvious situations. Everyone can see the relationships between cause and effect. All that’s needed is to apply some energy and focus to solving any problem.
  • Experts are are really useful in complicated situations, where there is a knowable relationship between cause and effect. That relationship isn’t superficially obvious, but the expert will either know what’s going on, or will know how to figure it out.
  • Complex situations, on the other hand, are defined as those where the relationships between cause and effect are indirect and obscure. They can only be perceived in retrospect: prediction is pointless. The best way forward is to experiment and allow solutions to emerge. Here, know-it-all experts are likely to come unstuck. They’ll be a waste of money, or worse.

Swimming Into Complexity

Here’s a personal example. As part of my triathlon training, I’ve been learning to swim front crawl for the last 12 months or so. Blimey, it’s tricky!

At first, I thought I had an obvious problem. Clearly, millions of children learn to swim every year worldwide. I’d just pop along to a class or two, and Bob’s your uncle.

Not so 🙁

But my then teacher seemed to have the answer. “Just swim lots, get fitter, it’ll all come together.”

She wouldn’t have defined it as such, but she was effectively saying, “Learning front crawl as an adult is complex, not complicated. Experimentation, leading to emergent solutions, is where it’s at.”

That hasn’t worked so far. It might, eventually, but it feels a bit like asking a team of monkeys to knock out a Shakespeare play or two.

Her categorisation doesn’t seem logical. Millions of kids are learning to swim, and broadly generating similar results. Occasionally there’s a big breakthrough (I seem to remember that when I was at school, we were specifically taught not to roll from side to side because that was a Colonial novelty that would soon be outlawed in racing…), but fundamentally this is a Newtonian problem, involving a finite number of interactions between solids and liquids. The flap of a butterfly’s wing in China does not influence my speed in the pool.

So I kept looking for a better expert. Recently, I found one – possibly the greatest living expert on teaching adults to swim front crawl. Well, I didn’t actually meet Paul Newsome, but I did get some amazing help from Gavin Prior, who teaches using Paul’s SwimSmooth system. Paul and his team appear to have put in enough analysis time to really understand the cause-effect relationships. I have high hopes – and crossed fingers.

The moral of the story, I think, is that when you have a problem, check it against Cynefin. If the solution is obvious, just fix it. If it’s complicated, shop for a decent expert.

But in the mysterious world of the complex, you might do better to buy a coach or facilitator who’s happy to hold your hand on the adventure of the unknown…

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