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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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

The Scream, by Edvard MunchComfortable Ignorance
When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
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Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
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Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
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When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not.

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
Tuckman's stages of group developmentAnd on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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