The illusion of expertise.
March 2019. We were working on a couple of ideas to pivot our organization from a boutique strategy consulting firm to a scale-oriented business. Amidst this ideation, we invited a venture capitalist who has been our well-wisher to bounce off our business model. He heard us patiently and then said, “I have rarely seen industry experts disrupting the industry. Look around from education to entertainment and travel to transportation; it’s always the outsiders. Experience today is a massive barrier to innovation”. He urged us to challenge some of our assumptions.
Being an expert has phenomenal advantages. With years of experience and in-depth knowledge in a field, one can perform quickly and efficiently. This was explained empirically by Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist and a pioneer in cognitive psychology. He studied the thinking and perceiving patterns of chess masters with those of amateurs and concluded that expert players don’t depend on deeper calculations or a different method of thinking but depend on the enormous amount of finely tuned experience and knowledge to form meaningful patterns or schemas*. This allows them to see a position on the chessboard and instinctively come to the solution by dipping into their vast library of schemas to extract the most important information, recognize underlying patterns and react with an almost automatic response from a pre-learnt script. De Groot’s study inspired countless other studies in many domains to come to the same conclusion.
Paradoxically, the very underpinning of expertise can also become detrimental to performance. When you have a ton of experience, you don’t need all the data because your brain fills in the gaps. You hear a story, look at a piece of data, or face a decision, and your brain draws upon the thousands of times you have seen this, faced a similar decision, heard the same story, and it races ahead to a conclusion.
The illusion of expertise makes you more close-minded and less likely to seek or listen to the views of people who disagree with you. You develop tunnel vision, become the victim of biases, indulge in overconfidence, and with no doubt, curiosity takes a beating. Our friend was cautioning us from falling into this trap. Our business model assumptions were based on how the industry functions today and not what it will become.
Zen Buddhism offers a remedy to this trap captured in the word Shoshin, which means a beginner’s mind- A state of openness and wonder that allows a person to approach life unfettered by the preconceptions, biases, or habits associated with knowledge and experience. As put by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki” In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the experts, there are few.”
So how do we discover our beginner’s mind?
Shut up and listen: Let go of the need to add value. High achievers have an overwhelming need to provide value to the people around them even before completing a thought. Step back now and then to observe and listen.
Tell me more about that: Resist the temptation to conclude or ignore a piece of information if it’s not making sense to you. Respect the unfamiliar and explore opposing views to understand. In his fantastic book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb writes, “I try to remind my group each week that we are all idiots and know nothing, but we have the good fortune of knowing it.”
Experience first-hand knowledge: Often, as experts, you move away from ground realities and depend on second-hand data to make sense of the world. Conversation with frontline staff, roaming the markets, conversing with customers, and seeing the world from their vantage point can be humbling experiences.
Cultivate a friend circle with diverse views and talents: This can help you get out of your echo chambers. It also allows one to realize that expertise in one area can’t be extended to others!
Fostering a ‘beginner’s mind’ is not a purely individual endeavor. There is also an important social, interpersonal dimension to the cultivation of openness and humility. DBS Bank in Singapore has a system called MOJO( Meeting Owner, Joyful Observer). Every meeting, the joyful observer observes the meeting owner and provides feedback to make the person aware of pitfalls. Just the fact of observation makes the person more self-aware!
In the last 15 months, we have iterated our business model a dozen times, partnered with an outsider, and continue our experiments in awe. Only time will tell if we are onto something disruptive, but we momentarily escaped our expertise trap!