Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 52;   December 30, 2015: Call in the Right Expert

Call in the Right Expert

by

When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret)

COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret). As recounted in Robert Coram's book, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, it was as a major that Wyly was appointed by MAJ GEN Bernard Trainor to be in charge of tactics at the Marine Corps' Amphibious Warfare School. And he was directed to "fix" the tactics curriculum. He consulted an expert, Bill Lind, to find some new thinking about tactics. Lind recommended John Boyd. Wyly invited Boyd to brief his class, and he opened the class to all students. This incident turned out to be a significant link in the chain — or node in the web, really — of events that remade thinking about both tactics and strategy of the U.S. military, and, eventually, industry. Wyly's approach fits the pattern described here: find an expert to recommend an expert. Photo courtesy Norman Fulkerson via his blog, "Modern American Heroes."

Whether it's an application user interface, a piece of equipment, a redesigned process, a marketing strategy, or whatever, when the unexpected occurs, we ask experts to explain how to proceed, or to fix the problem. When they can fix it, that's great, but when they can't, our first thoughts are usually that the expert we called is perhaps not expert enough. That's the easy case, so let's set it aside.

The more difficult case is that the experts we called are skilled enough, and might even be the best there is, but they're expert in the wrong field. How can this happen? What are the consequences? How can we prevent it?

Three important mechanisms can lead to calling the wrong expert.

Limited authority to choose
We can't always choose the expert we need. Budget restrictions, signature authority, and expert availability sometimes dictate the choice.
Control mechanisms and expert availability can both generate risk. Account for this risk in risk plans.
Incorrect diagnosis
Sometimes we diagnose the problem incorrectly, either by honest mistake, or by overestimating our own diagnostic expertise.
Unless you have diagnostic expertise, let experts perform the diagnosis.
Undue influence by experts
Sometimes an expert employee, consultant, or contractor recommends an expert, not on the basis of suitability, but as a favor to the expert being recommended, or because of constraints imposed by the recommender's employer.
Validate recommendations for their objectivity.

Calling in the wrong expert can have serious consequences:

Wasting time and resources
Experts (and all people) are vulnerable to what psychologists call a mental set. If the problem solution lies within the expert's domain of expertise, nobody can address it better. But if the problem solution lies elsewhere, we waste time and resources eliminating all possible solutions within the expert's domain.
Damaging assets
Before the wrong experts deduce that the problem solution lies outside their domains of expertise, damage to assets is possible. The experts might even be the agents of the damage.
Learning
The one benefit Sometimes we diagnose the problem
incorrectly, either by honest mistake,
or by overestimating our own
diagnostic expertise
of choosing the wrong expert is the potential to learn the importance of choosing the right expert. That learning can lead us to re-examine the expert-choosing process.

To prevent recurrences, consider two measures. First, avoid diagnosing problems. For example, if the computer can't communicate with the network, don't assume that the computer is defective, or that the network connection is defective. Simply report that the computer can't communicate with the network. Second, consider calling on an expert to tell you what kind of expert you need. In healthcare, this role has been called diagnostician, but the role is emerging in many fields. Before calling an expert, find a "diagnostician" for the relevant problem domain.

Most important, if you know that expert identification isn't working well in your organization, don't guess why. Consult an expert. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I  Next Issue

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