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A constant theme during the pandemic is that leaders should listen to the experts when making decisions. Ironically, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pushed back at the experts in the public service over initial plans for the Canada Student Service Grant that was seen as a good thing, and some commentators felt he should have continued to push back after they returned with essentially the same approach. At work, reaching out for experienced consultants or knowledgeable academics can be divisive, as colleagues argue it devalues the knowledge and expertise within the organization.

So dealing with experts is not always clear cut. Indeed, in his book Think for Yourself, Vikram Mansharamani, a lecturer at Harvard University, argues that managing the use of experts on our thinking is one of the most important and vexing challenges of our time. As life becomes more complex, we lean more on expertise. But because of that complexity often the expertise is very narrow and specialized – and therefore, dangerous. He points to the parable of the blind men encountering an elephant, each with a unique focus and thus not understanding the whole. “Time and time again, experts and specialists have failed to understand complex, interconnected phenomenon,” he warns.

He includes technologies in the expert problem since we are increasingly outsourcing decisions to them. In your personal life, think of the GPS, Alexa and Google – your reliance on their expertise. At work, there may be algorithms and efforts at artificial intelligence that take decisions from human hands.

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His book calls for restoring common sense. But that doesn’t mean the simplistic thinking we often call common sense. He wants integrated thinking that understands the context: Deep expertise must be complemented by broad perspective.

More concretely, he suggests asking: Is the type of decision I need to make one in which an expert can be helpful? To do that you must distinguish between complicated and complex situations. In a complicated decision, there is usually a clear relationship between cause and effect but it’s hard to see or understand the nuances, mechanism and connections. A complex situation is ambiguous and poorly defined – hard to predict owing to constant flux. “If the situation is complicated, an expert can help. If it’s complex, however, you need to own the problem and tap into expertise that can help you understand how to move forward,” he writes.

Also ask: What are the assumptions behind the advice I am getting? What incentives may be impacting the guidance received from advisers – what conflicts of interest or other influences may be playing a role? And finally, what if I do nothing? Sometimes that may be the best approach but it’s hard to raise the possibility with experts eager to offer a carefully worked out solution with a fancy accompanying implementation plan.

If not experts, the other path is to rely on our own experience and investigations. But in The Myth of Experience behavioural scientists Emre Soyer and Robin Hogarth warn that can also lead us astray. Experience is rooted in personal observations, anecdotes and how they come together into stories we tell ourselves. “Experience can deceive, without us being aware,” they note.

Experiences quickly become stories; we generate narratives based on our observations and interpretations of events. The chronology of events often lead us to perceive cause-and-effect relationships that may be illusory. We rarely have tried alternative paths, so our stories are actually more limited in scope than we acknowledge – a certain decision worked but there may have been an even better approach that was never followed. And we try to predict the future from these experiences when the basis for prediction is more slender than we think and the current situation subtly or vastly different.

As well, they note, once we have learned unreliable lessons from experiences those lessons are hard to unlearn or amend. They can also become further solidified with more experience. “This is why, even when circumstances change, we can find ourselves trapped by our experience and fail to adjust appropriately,” they say.

So next time you dig back into your experience for the solution to a problem, check your premises. Be alert to irrelevant patterns you may have developed from randomness; it’s easy to identify “causes” even when dealing with phenomenon that are random or shaped by factors too complex to identify. Consider the element of time: The authors observe our experience-based stories tend to underestimate the time it takes for things to take effect. Your experience may also be more limited than you have admitted; you are overgeneralizing, perhaps inclined to make yourself the hero of the story in your mind.

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The conclusion: Be skeptical of experts, but also be skeptical of your experience-based stories. Challenge the premises on which the thinking in either situation is based. Consider using experiments to test the ideas. Focus on the data. Push back on the experts and push back on yourself.

Cannonballs

  • What are three lessons you have learned about your work since the coronavirus struck in March? How can you act on those lessons in the days ahead?
  • Instead of starting conversations with a lame phrase such as “how are you?” executive coach Dan Rockwell encourages you to dig deeper with questions such as: What are you working on? What’s next on your agenda? What challenges are you facing? What’s working for you? What would you like to get done today?
  • David Cote, former chief executive of Honeywell, says an important step in creating a “thinking company” was for him to hold back on expressing his viewpoint until he heard everyone else’s: “So, I came up with this line: My job here is to make good decisions and that means I need to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning.”

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