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Leadership: Ignorant Expertise

Last weekend I purchased a Panasonic DVD recorder. It came with the usual manual and quick-start setup guide. I’m not a techie, but I’m no slouch; I know how to follow directions. Well after 2 hours of following the instructions to the letter, I couldn’t make it work. There was a help-line phone number so I called and got instructions from the rep and within 15 minutes had the machine fully integrated with my other devices and working perfectly.

Last weekend I purchased a Panasonic DVD recorder. It came with the usual manual and quick-start setup guide. I’m not a techie, but I’m no slouch; I know how to follow directions. Well after 2 hours of following the instructions to the letter, I couldn’t make it work. There was a help-line phone number so I called and got instructions from the rep and within 15 minutes had the machine fully integrated with my other devices and working perfectly. So why weren’t the written and graphic instructions any good and why did they not reflect the setup sequence and connections the phone rep had in her hands?

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Back in December, there was a fascinating article in the New York Times that discussed the issue of expertise and how the more expert we become, the harder it is to imagine not knowing what we do and the less we can imagine others not having the knowledge we have. I struggle with it constantly when I speak to or train new groups of people. I’ve been doing what I do so long and my knowledge is so deep, it’s hard for me to imagine they don’t already know it.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. When I have this mindset, I am at risk for leaving out important points, glossing over them or making them with less passion than I used to earlier in my career when the knowledge was newer and fresher. Fighting it requires a lot of discipline and self-coaching.

When such thinking dominates in the business world, we end up with an abundant use of jargon that no one understands but those who are saying it and the inability to explain complex concepts because the people doing the explaining are so close to their subjects. At its worst, such “ignorant expertise” chokes off innovation because those with the expert knowledge don’t allow others into their exclusive club.

And it goes much further. According to Chip Heath, co-author of “Made to Stick,” “People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us.” Heath goes on to explain how a gadget as common as a remote control became so complex:

“I HAVE a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it, and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too.”

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The NYT article describes an experiment that was done in 1990 where people were asked to tap out the rhythm of a familiar song and listeners were asked to name the song. The “tappers” were asked to predict what percentage of the time the listeners would get it right. They vastly overestimated the success rates and couldn’t understand why something that was so clear in their minds could not be heard by others.

There are solutions. One, mentioned above, is to be very disciplined. That, however, may not be enough as it is difficult to see ourselves as others see us. So, sometimes we need someone who is brought in specifically to look in from the outside, to act as an observer, a see-er. When I’m with my clients and they explain a concept to me, if I can’t understand it, it’s unlikely others will either. I’m the sounding board. They simplify and are more successful as a result.

Perhaps if the folks responsible for writing the manual and set-up guides for Panasonic had had someone looking in from the outside, someone whom they took through the steps they had written out, they would’ve discovered those instructions didn’t work and saved me and countless other customers hours of time and frustration.

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates LLC • High-Stakes Communications • Greenwich, CT • www.ruthsherman.com

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About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.

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