The problem with industry experts

Lesson Learned #30

American psychologist Abraham Maslow was reportedly an optimist, famous for his hierarchy of needs. He is also credited with the phrase: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s a little how we feel about industry experts (even though there are a number of industries where we claim to be experts).

Industry expertise is sometimes needed to help solve technical problems when that expertise is not resident within the company, but for general change management it can actually be a hindrance. Industry experience is more impressive from a marketing perspective than it is from a practical operating perspective. A long list of relevant experience and familiarity with local industry jargon are understandably comforting to people who have to decide whether or not to trust you to help them. But expertise is a double-edged sword. It is sometimes worse than coming in with no preconceived notions and an open mind about both what could be the root problems and viable solutions. Once your expertise allows you to start jumping to conclusions without considering the facts, you’re in trouble. We’ve learned that if our consultants work too long for one client they start to lose their objectivity. They begin to rationalize why something can’t be done even before they have properly analyzed the situation.

The reason is reflected in Maslow’s thinking. As you become more familiar with any subject matter, you are apt to cut corners, whether you are aware of it or not. Experts have a tendency to treat problems they come across as the same or similar to ones they have encountered in the past. This in itself is not necessarily bad. Sometimes problems are similar, and certainly history has a way of repeating itself, but we’ve learned that problems are very much context specific. And usually the biggest single context variable is people. The makeup and style of management can be radically different from one location to another, even though the process and systems may be virtually identical. We work in many businesses that intentionally replicate their management systems and business processes to support their scale (e.g., hotels, wineries, and distribution centers). The toughest thing for them (and us) is to manage through the variances, between locations, in how people work together and interact. This usually has little to do with the industry.