Expertise and Flexibility: A Critical Marriage for Business Performance

Expertise and Flexibility: A Critical Marriage for Business Performance

Image: Jeanbastiengmo, Carmen Judais-Friedrich, 2008, [Public Domain or CC BY-SA 3.0] v. Wikimedia Commons

You don’t have go far to read impassioned references to the American “skills gap.” A recent survey published by Adecco found that 92% of American executives believe that American workers are not as skilled as they need to be. Although reasonable minds differ as to whether the “skills gap” is a real problem or not, one thing is very clear: technical expertise is critical to running a successful business in every sector of the economy.

As a big believer in humanistic inquiry, I’m also the first to celebrate the importance – and the power – of technical expertise. When we face a health crisis, we are comforted by sensitivity and bedside manner, but we are less concerned about kindness than the technical skill a surgeon brings to a proposed procedure. When we board a plane, the instruments do most of the work, but we are mindful that we put our lives in the hands of the engineers who make those instruments and develop the software that enables them to perform successfully every time the plane alights.

Although I’ve written here about the role of experience in honing expertise, the expertise itself cannot be undervalued as a driver of superior performance. Successful companies not only leverage technical expertise to make their products or deliver their services, they are also run by experts – not management experts but experts in the business and its functions.  

But expertise has a shadow.

How often we fail to question someone whose expertise outstrips our own, for fear of treading where we don’t belong, or seeming foolish. And similarly, experts themselves are often pressured to assert solutions based on muscle memory when a problem may require a new approach. Expertise can stand in the way of openness to new ideas and the reframing of old challenges. In a fascinating study, Erik Dane of Rice University calls this phenomenon “cognitive entrenchment.” Domain experts become “inflexible in thought and behavior,” less able to “adapt to novel situations and to generate radically creative ideas within their domain.” As experts become more expert, their domain understanding becomes even more complex, but also more fixed, and they “may become resistant to modification.” In short, they can get stuck.

Irene and Marie Curie

Marie Curie and Her Daughter, Irene, 1925 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

But all is not lost. Dane’s research finds that the seemingly unavoidable trade-off between expertise and flexibility may be mitigated with two interventions: highly dynamic in-domain environments, and the opportunity to focus attention on activities outside expert domains. In describing the latter, Dane asserts that out-of-domain experiences serve to “jolt attentional systems awake and reconfigure both perception and imagination.”

At Books@Work, Dane’s scholarly observations come to life, especially in programs run in natural teams. One leader shared with us recently that through Books@Work, his senior management team is fully present. A wide array of roles and diverse (but deep) expertise melts away as the group takes on thorny human subjects together. He explained that, for his team, Books@Work discussions create an environment for everyone to come to the table, to share their thoughts and perspectives, to “discuss the undiscussables.” “When we incorporate Books@Work in a staff meeting, the quality of the entire meeting improves. We have everyone in the room.” The deep engagement with human stories creates opportunities for respectful disagreement and for challenging one’s assumptions and the assumptions of others. When the team returns to work, he shared, the group is freer to give feedback, to question the experts – not with rancor, but with “confidence and clarity” and a renewed vigor to solve problems together, across very diverse domains. “We just discussed the story of a father and what he does when his daughter kills someone, now we speak more directly and productively about the issues we face at work.” The stories, he added, “stimulate our forward thinking, not our current thinking.”

As we develop deeper and narrower fields of vision and expertise, it takes a special effort to challenge our own paradigms, to reshape our own perceptions. We need experts and their knowledge to fuel our productivity. But, in a rapidly changing world, our most effective experts will be those who can remain dynamic and flexible, capable of exploring radical new solutions to fundamentally new questions.

Learn About Our Programs or Read More on The Notebook:

How Literature is a Catalyst for Creative Thinking
For a More Creative Workplace: Foster Collaboration and Respectful Engagement
Just Listen: A Simple Tool for Minimizing Bias and Transforming Relationships

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.