When is an Expert Dangerous?

An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes, which can be made, in a very narrow field.
Niels Bohr 

What role can be most effective for experts in today's world of collective intelligence?  Most conferences and meetings still begin with "experts" talking to the listeners.  The listeners are to be learning "what" and "how" to think about a given subject.  At best, ideas are being perturbed in the listeners minds, but not made to think differently. At the end of the talks, listeners have a few minutes left to ask questions and make comments. 

When I have suggested to conference and workshop developers that they not begin with key note speakers, I am told that no one will come if there is not a draw from the experts. This might be true, or at least true for a while longer, but using an expert to attract does not infer that the expert speaks first and shares what he or she knows up front.  In many ways, this does disservice to the expert because there is little new learning required by this person. They miss out on the chance to learn new ways to think about their subject ... to grow the knowledge base around their expertise, and to have personal insights gained from wider vantage points. 

In developing the ideas around the MG Taylor DesignShop, Matt and I refused to let experts present their findings up front.  And yes, we had many battles around this way of looking at reality.  In one case, a corporation had just spent a million dollars for an expert report on the weaknesses of their organization and how to improve training and assess employees. They insisted that the expert who did the report give his report up front. We said "no". Finally, the organization relented and we designed a process where the findings of this report could be presented on Day 3 of a three day event, after a group of 100 employees ranging from CEO through at-the-counter employees worked on how to strengthen their organization on all levels.  Starting with a broad scan and visioning, participants worked their way through a focus of the vision and how to insure it in the shortest possible time frame.  By the time we had the million dollar report reported, it was clear that the employees knew how to go way beyond the report in what mattered to them. Each wanted to make a bigger difference, to play a more integrated role, to work with others, to have good feedback systems in place, to build integrity and onenness into the learning/doing processes of the organization.  The report expert was blown away and had only to praise the participants and point out a few links that could be strengthened. This report played a valid role but not as it was intended.  In deed, it helped validate the organizational mind and provided transparent boundaries for systematic change.  The employees had ownership, something impossible to gain from the findings and sharings of a report or any expertise. 

More and more research is revealing that too much agreement up front prevents participants from finding and sharing new, thought provoking ideas.  The wisdom of crowds reveals "brilliant answers" only when there is lots of diversity and little agreement at the beginning.  With a few simple rules, crowds can quickly share and learn from the bottom up resulting in fresh insights and more novel ways of solving a sticky problem. (When We're Cowed by the Crowd)

Everytime we have won the battle to give the expert a different role than up front "this-is-how-you-think-about-this-issue", the results have been rich, and in most cases the experts are more pleased with the difference they have been able to play. 

The next time you plan an event, consider changing the game so that the participants have freedom to think creatively and differently. Let the collective intelligence surface and cohere so that the expert has an opportunity to learn what is already known and can therefore add only the difference that makes a difference.