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The Problem with Expertise

There is some great research by Gary Klein, which he shares in his book The Power of Intuition. It’s not unlike what you may have read already in books like Blink and others that suggest great decisions can happen in no time. But here’s the thing – Klein’s research was surprising even to him, because he thought that he would discover that when firemen were under pressure they would limit their evaluation of alternatives down to two. Now that, in and of itself, is a pretty interesting dynamic, were it to be true, because it suggests that better options could have been neglected. But what he found was that they weren’t even evaluating two decisions. They were making major decisions without considering more than a single option. How? Through the power of experience.

The Power of Experience

Experience is a great thing. Expertise is even better. It enables us to make snap judgements just by looking at situations we’ve seen thousands of times before. And that’s what Klein found. In situations where ground fire commanders had to make decisions they didn’t even feel like they were making them. They were not recalling a specific situation or event. They just had amalgamated all their experiences to help them recognize a pattern and once they recognized it, they were able to make some moves.

When Experience Betrays Us

The challenge with leveraging our experiences and expertise is that we can find ourselves making decisions like those fire fighters (in under 30 seconds) even if we could take minutes, hours, or days to make the call. We make snap decisions because we can. We make them because we’re comfortable making them. We make them because we know this situation inside and out – because we’ve been here before. Except….what happens when this time is unlike the times before. What happens when the surface familiarities hide the fact that the situation we’re in right now is unlike the others we’ve seen before.

That’s the problem with expertise. It blinds us to new situations that look similar to old ones.

How do we protect ourselves?

Here are two things we can do to protect ourselves from getting blindsided by new situations that look so familiar we don’t notice they’re new.

The first is to bring on outsiders. Surround yourself with not just other experts but with people willing to ask the silly questions simply because they’re not conditioned (Klein calls it “primed”) to the context you’re so familiar with. Lencioni, in his book on consulting (Getting Naked), talks about the vulnerability but power of being willing to just ask those questions someone else is afraid to ask. Outsiders can do that. It’s why I recommend that you hire outsiders.

The second is slow down and to change how you think. The word, as Jonah Lehrer writes in How We Decide, is metacognition. It means the thinking about thinking. The easiest way to make sure we’re not getting too quickly anchored is to stop and ask ourselves if we’re making a snap decision that really needs to be a snap decision, or if we can slow down and evaluate the way we’re thinking.

You tell me – am I off base here, or do we need to protect ourselves from relying on our own expertise and falling into the trap of decision anchoring?

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