The Disease of Experts

Ronald Reagan is credited with saying the problem with a certain group of people is that so much of what they know isn’t true.

In the interest of bipartisanship, I’ll refrain from mentioning the group he targeted in his remark. But the essence of the remark is pointed: so much of what we think we know ain’t so. Experts aren’t immune to this disease. In fact due to the mantle of infallibility draped on some experts,  they may be more susceptible to error than other mere humans.

“The disease of experts” is a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell.  This morning, leadership guru Michael Hyatt called attention to Gladwell’s phenomenon in his blog as it relates to leadership, and it bears discussion here, as well.

To quote Hyatt’s blog, “Gladwell called overconfidence ‘the disease of experts.’  They think they know more than they actually do. In fact, they make mistakes precisely because they have knowledge.”

Overcoming Overconfidence

Experts are often accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, and this can lead to overconfidence. Certainly expertise in any field by definition requires extensive study. Some say it equates to 10,000 hours of study in one area, which translates to about five years in a full-time job or the years put into gaining a PhD. That kind of work lays the foundation for earned credibility and respect in your field.

Hyatt often talks about the value of humility, and this subject is one that gave him an opportunity to remind his readers, “What we really need are leaders who are humble and willing to listen.”

Beyond that prescription for leaders, I would like to add some advice for experts in any field who are called upon to transfer their knowledge to others.

  1. Question everything. Yesterday’s truth is tomorrow’s myth. See “flat earth meets Galileo.”
  2. Stay current in your field. Some say we now collect as much knowledge in two years as we had from the beginning of human history until today. People around the world are always building on each others’ knowledge. Remain tapped in to other experts in your field so you are aware of the latest developments.
  3. Remember your humble beginnings and treat learners’ questions with respect. Honor the next generation who will build upon your work. They will carry your hard work forward and create the next great leaps in science, technology, education, the arts, business and industry.

After all, it is that student with the perplexing question who leads to the next great leap in your field. Honor the learners and leave a foundation that you have helped build so they can move your field forward to the next levels of innovation.

Answer learners simply and sincerely. Tell them the truth as best you know it, so what they know is so.

Episode 9: Capture Your Most Important Knowledge First

Welcome to the Working with SMEs Podcast. This week our cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion abut how to determine what internal knowledge needs to be captured and why.

We talk about making sure you are preserving knowledge that has lasting value and is worth preserving. Some information has value today but may not help your organization meet the challenges of the future. Knowledge that will have historical value is worth preserving, too, but may not require your urgent attention.

Recommended resource: Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World by Peter H Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

Thank you for listening! We encourage your comments below.

Preserving Corporate Expertise is a Risk Management Issue

Risk Management

If you hear something twice, pay attention. In this case, I heard the same comment three times in as many weeks. That comment was about the importance of preserving corporate expertise as a risk management issue. Yes, it is.

Expertise by definition takes time to acquire, is rare and is not easily replaced, which translates into expensive. The experts in your organization are holding some valuable cards, and losing your experts and their knowledge could cost you delays, customers, sales and even the competitive advantage you hold within your industry.

To find your knowledge vulnerabilities, make an assessment of your critical assets by stratifying them according to whatever criteria points to your most acute assets. Not all information is important but if you analyze your company by people, products and divisions you are unlikely to overlook anything.  You may not know all the information you need to retain without a fairly thorough organizational analysis, so it is worthwhile to do a periodic assessment of your potential losses.

Any internal knowledge assessment is strengthened by doing an external scan to give you a strong grasp of the state of your industry and what your competitors are doing as well as a grasp of how your business and your industry fits into the larger global economy. You may have cornered the market on dial telephones but you needed to understand the impact of mobile phone technology to understand where your business was headed. That kind of information will tell you what to keep and what new kinds of expertise you need to begin to acquire to stay in your game.

Because knowledge management is (or should be) an integral part of your corporate strategic plan, it argues for making sure your training department remains close to your C-suite to align missions. Such alignment will help prevent wasting scarce training dollars on short-sighted training efforts.

Especially with the pace of change both technologically and geopolitically, you can’t afford to ignore a thorough analysis of your knowledge management needs that considers your company’s vulnerabilities now and into the future. That is why your knowledge management plan should be an integral part of your corporate risk assessment.

Episode 8: Make Sure Your Knowledge Capture Supports Your Succession Plan

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about the importance of doing a thorough knowledge scan and capture in your organization to support succession planning efforts.

While it is likely that any new leadership is going to make some changes, a thorough assessment of the important knowledge assets in your organization can help new leaders make critical decisions and support their efforts to move the enterprise forward. As Nathan points out, often it is the soft, coded or unarticulated knowledge that is the special sauce that makes your company successful.

So it is important as you plan for the future of your organization that you do a thorough assessment of your assets today,  and that you make sure you retain that information that you can’t afford to lose.

We welcome your comments and feedback. Thanks for listening.

Sensitivity, Ageism and Country Music: Should We Provide Tips for Working with Retiring Employees?

recording engineer

Everyone has a definition of heaven. For some, it’s a golf course or a gourmet kitchen or an endless beach. For me, heaven is a recording studio. One of my hobbies is singing and songwriting and there is nothing like hearing your idea fully developed. About 15 years ago, I went to Nashville to record a song demo at a studio using the local studio talent. I worked with an arranger who also ran the studio session and he organized all the details – chose the studio, hired the musicians, and wrote out the arrangements.

Because I came in from out of town, he coordinated the session so that we could record all five songs to the final mix in one day. That gave us time to do an arranging session the day before and allowed time to set up appointments with song publishers to shop the tunes afterwards.

When he was hiring recording engineers – those are the guys you see behind glass at the big consoles with all the dials and knobs and sliders – he said, “I hired a young guy to stay with us through the final mix. They are the only ones with the energy for a long session like this.”

He surprised me when he said that, but it made perfect sense. It was something I had never considered. But he did this for a living, and he knew how demanding it would be so I trusted his judgment.

The Long Haul

A long session of five songs, from basic tracks through instrumental overdubs, basic vocal and background vocals, and finally to blending them all together, choosing levels at which each instrument and voice will appear and putting it through some electronic magic so it sounds good on a little speaker – takes time. Some big studio albums take months to record. When you are recording a song demo, it needs to be good but not final-product perfection. We flew through the whole thing in about 12 hours.

Nashville studio musicians are some of the best people on the planet. They are efficient and flawless. They record songs all day, every day. Think factory work for people who play guitar. Everyone comes in, does their thing for an hour or two or three, and then leaves. But the recording engineers, they are in it for the long haul. They have to listen to every note, work with every player to get a performance that is consistent with the vision, and keep their ears tuned right up until the final mix. It is exhausting. And they are on the clock. We needed a finished product by morning to get to meetings with publishers.

That’s why the arranger hired the young guy. Even I slept through the final mixes, and they woke me up to listen to the result around midnight. It felt a little like having a baby by C-section, you know, missing the actual birth. Nonetheless, the baby was born and we had a great demo.

The question is: Was the arranger practicing ageism by choosing a young engineer to ride through the whole process? Or was he just being sensitive to the fact that, as he explained, an older guy wasn’t going to last at the board in a non-stop, full-attention session for 15 hours?

Your Retiring Workers

That incident came to mind this week because a similar situation applies when working with retiring colleagues in a training situation. When I mentioned to a group of trainers recently that some retiring or retired workers might not have the stamina of younger workers, and may need considerations and adaptations, some were shocked that I would discuss it. Perhaps I was insensitive in the way I worded my comments. And trust me, in no way did I intend to insinuate that people over 60 are frail or deficient. Quite the opposite. Some of my best friends (ahem) are retired, and yes, they would be the first to admit they have more trouble walking, they go to bed earlier, and find themselves shopping for replacement parts.

One 63-year-old friend who works full time in a job that requires five, 12-hour days and submits to an annual physical requiring he stay in tip-top shape said, “I do everything I always did. I just do it less.”

Another 67-year-old yogi friend tours with rock bands and said, “I am in the best shape of my life.” I have seen him play guitar perched atop another yogi and I would have to agree.

All that aside, I am suggesting that when you work with older workers, you may need to consider things like stamina, eyesight and hearing. It’s just a biological fact. As I age, my eyesight isn’t nearly as good as it once was. I need to compensate for that.

I have worked with people in their 80s who have more to offer than they ever did, with perspective and wisdom and humor that comes with age. They are the most brilliant people, and I have learned most from them. But I paced interview sessions, allowed for hearing issues, and so forth, not to pander to them or to be condescending but rather out of consideration and sensitivity.

It isn’t ageism, as I see it. By mentioning the fact that older workers might (I emphasize MIGHT) need some considerations regarding the biological realities of aging, my intention is to invite sensitivity from people who work with older colleagues.

If my remarks- written or spoken – imply any inherent insufficiency of older workers, I apologize to anyone I’ve offended. I also hope that as we work with people who are approaching or have well surpassed the legal age of retirement, we consider different levels of physical tolerance than we expect from colleagues in their 20s.

Please comment on this issue. I invite a discussion and other perspectives.



Podcast Episode 7: Small and Medium Business Survival Planning

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, co-host Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about the importance of finding your critical corporate advantages especially in small and family businesses where succession planning can be even more sensitive than in larger, publicly-held corporations.

You can leave behind a sustainable organization by putting supports around new leadership.

Find out your most critical assets by building a map of your competitive advantages that explore your most valuable products, processes and people.

We welcome your feedback in the comment section below. Thanks for listening!


The Good News About a Meticulous Project Plan


Meticulous planning usually results in…well…a meticulous plan. If you’ve ever been asked to follow a plan, you know that when the perfect plan meets reality, you need to be flexible.

It is in that flexibility that you achieve your best results. As events unfold, budgets are blown and circumstances change, the truly successful know how to pivot. This doesn’t argue for proceeding without a plan but it does argue for responsiveness.

I was reminded of this yesterday during a workshop when we were talking about the challenges of developing training. Several times, our discussion circled back to the same conclusion: Many issues that arise during a project can be avoided by setting out expectations and aligning the right resources in the project planning stage.

Conversely, we also discussed that some issues that arise are unavoidable even when they are considered at the planning stage. Personnel change. Schedules change. Sometimes the ideal doesn’t match reality no matter how hard we try to account for it.

True excellence, it seems, occurs when a good plan meets competent individuals who know how to respond to changing circumstances.

The U.S. Marine Corp Seven P’s

As I was considering the importance of good project planning today, I was reminded of the following saying most often attributed to the United States Marine Corps:

“Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”

The military often precedes and exceeds the private sector in leadership and training initiatives. Therefore, it is no surprise that it also gives us some of these gems of wisdom to live by. But in deference to the fact that the private sector is not as well-regimented as the military and its human resource not as easily commanded, the softer approach to planning in the private sector accounts for many of the inconsistent results.

As the training group discussed yesterday, many issues can be anticipated and accounted for in the planning process. In fact, crises can be averted when the right resources are applied in the right amounts at the right time at the planning stage. However, in an age of constant change, it pays to master the arts of flexibility and responsiveness. For example, if a project loses a critical person midstream, there is a far greater chance of completion if there is a plan in place that the rest of the team and any new members can continue to follow. In a cult of personalities where individuals run the show, the loss of any single critical team member can derail a project. A well-run project has backup resources and focuses on the plan, not any single individual.

While the best laid plans may go awry, anyone who has ever achieved anything of note knows that a well-thought-out and well-executed plan employing well-considered resources was somewhere at the heart of it.

Work with Your Experts the DIY Way: Introducing the Working in SMEville Workbook


Several people have asked me to put together a DIY version of Working with SMEs with worksheets and step-by-step checklists, templates and guidelines to show you exactly how to work with your subject matter experts. Done.

Working in SMEville: A Workbook is now available in an 8X10 inch format that you can write in, copy pages, and use in a way that gives you a step-by-step method for getting information from your expert in a linear way.

The workbook is in two sections. The first section is a distilled version of a workshop about the 10 Types of SMEs and how you can work together to overcome specific, common hurdles. The second section is the step-by-step guide with templates and worksheets to help you gather information, verify it and evaluate your work in a systematic way.

Working in SMEville: A Workbook is a quick way to immediately apply the Working with SMEs methodology step-by-step in a DIY way.

We hope this inexpensive workbook helps you through the process of working with your subject matter experts and managing knowledge transfer in a systematic way.

We are interested in your comments and feedback below.


Company Culture Promotes Right-the-First-Time Attitude


Last week, I attended the AGXPE regional meeting where we had info-packed sessions on the process of getting compliance documentation right. It was a pharmaceutical-focused group so we had a lot of discussion around FDA inspections. But, as any industry under regulatory supervision knows, the kinds of best practices and standard operating procedures that guide safety can be found in any manufacturing environment where employee and customer lives are on the line.

Two perspectives emerged from the sessions. First, the group discussed the many issues involved in getting data right the first time. Second, the group wrestled the issue of quality control checks on the back end. In both cases, many of the same attitudes and issues underlie the problems that result in faulty data and information capture that, in the case of pharmaceutical manufacturing, often result in lines shut down, batches thrown away, lots recalled or patients injured.

To get to the heart of the accuracy of initial data entry and quality control, you have to take a close look at what causes human error. Causes are almost as varied as the humans involved.

The AGXPE group had its share of trainers in attendance, and training people know that they are the first stop when a performance issue is uncovered. Training people also know that often the problem can’t be solved with training alone.

A complex human problem, especially this one, cannot be narrowed down to one or two specific issues with a couple of quick and neat little fixes. What really is going on is a complex web of human knowledge, skills and attitudes that come both from the personal background and experience of individual employees combined with the culture of the organization.

This is where the organization can affect the outcome. The one thing organizations can address and control is the culture. A right-the-first-time mentality can be cultivated, encouraged, rewarded and modeled from the top down. In fact, it is the only way that a company can reinforce behaviors that it values.

After employees are imbued with the company culture of responsibility and accountability at the source where information is captured or products manufactured, then training can come in and do their jobs by providing guidance and methods for achieving excellence the first time.

If solving the complex reasons behind human error were simple, the problem would not exist. But if solutions were impossible, near-perfect performance would not already be happening in plants around the world where examples of human excellence abound.


12 Great Questions When Interviewing an Expert


bubble wrap  The interview process is a big part of working with subject matter experts. Your curiosity is your greatest asset when you are talking to an expert whether you are looking for information for an article, a book or a training program.

Capturing expertise and packaging it for transfer to others is a bit like moving precious cargo and surrounding it with bubble wrap. You want it to arrive safely and look the same coming out of the box as it did when you put it in.

In journalism school, you  learn a bit about how to structure an interview including getting simple facts straight like spelling someone’s name and title correctly and jotting down the date and time you spoke with them. Those little hacks are good to apply to any interview, anytime, for any purpose.

If you don’t know much – or anything at all – about a subject that you have to write about, here are a few starter questions to get you on a path to uncovering the important information that will help you develop a strong document.

These following questions are suggestions, and as such, they are broadly worded so you can adapt the questions to your situation.

Ask about:

1.                  Length of career, education, history with company or field

2.                  Details of studies or techniques

3.                  Ways this may differ from current knowledge, skills, attitudes

4.                  Any simple steps, shortcuts or easy ways to remember this information

5.                  Ways this information can be applied immediately

6.                  Any warnings or special care instructions

7.                  Variations or exceptions to the knowledge provided

8.                  When and where to apply knowledge

9.                  Types of exercises or practice to reinforce knowledge

10.              Any anticipated changes in this knowledge, field, technique

11.              “Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think should be included?”

12.              Date and time of next interview or check review schedule for materials created

One Last Tip

The good stuff is usually in the follow-up questions that you ask. Often, people will provide only basic information or will forget some important detail to the above questions. After your interviewee has answered the question, find a nugget in their answer that you find interesting and ask more about it.

Now you are getting to the gems. And they will appreciate the fact that you are listening and showing genuine interest.

What are your favorite interview questions? Please comment below.