Expertise as Limiting; Uncertainty as Enabling

There’s a common manifestation of “The Expert” in every field–one who has allowed the weight of their accumulated knowledge and experience to drag them down into an unfortunate state of certainty. The Expert has gained so much confidence in their field and craft that they see themselves as qualified, empowered, and even obligated to make absolute statements about all things adjacent to the domain they occupy. I see this all the time in the fields of innovation, design, ux, and Design Thinking. I think it’s partially a product of the competitive market for expertise and commodification of often overly-simplified systems intended to enable good design or innovation (perhaps a topic for another time).

I should also be open about the fact that I am an expert in none of these fields. I am a newcomer, having only been exploring them a few years. Reflecting on it though, I don’t claim to be an expert in any field. I am plagued by doubt and uncertainty in all that I do. I suppose I’ve developed some decent instincts when it comes to writing, having had an amount of practice over the years, but even then… it doesn’t come as a surprise to me when what I thought had been working fails to work. I won’t be surprised if this message doesn’t hit right or fails to resonate. I have a theory about it being a worthwhile message, but remain uncertain until the experiment of its release is met with feedback. I might share it across a number of platforms and see completely different responses on each of them. All writing is experimentation, because human communication is always complex.

I also sincerely hope that I never become this type of Expert… because this uncertainty I feel isn’t a reflection of some kind of internal insufficiency on my part. It’s appropriate, considering the domain that I primarily occupy (innovation and design). Uncertainty is an enabling state when you’re operating in complexity.

You see, I don’t see positive outcomes or successes in any of the fields I occupy as simply the product of good practices. Good practices, learned through education and experience, could be expected to have good outcomes if what we were dealing with was an ordered system (to use the language of Cynefin). If explanations and experiences of the past could simply be plugged into the present to create a predictable future, uncertainty would certainly be a sign of something I lacked. But in complexity, where the right path is identified as you walk it… the foliage is always growing back behind you. The landscape is always shifting. For more on this subject, check out this video I did on Cynefin and new paradigms for complexity.

Uncertainty is an enabling state, because it keeps you reflective. It urges metacognition–to think about how you’re thinking. It demands that you listen more than you speak. It keeps you agile, afraid, and experimental–constantly questioning whether your insights about the past will prove to no longer be true, which they often will, if you are paying attention.

Design and innovation… this is complex. Thus, we should never be truly certain.

“Surprise in infinite play is the triumph of the future over the past. Since infinite players do not regard the past as having an outcome, they have no way of knowing what has been begun there. With each surprise, the past reveals a new beginning in itself. Inasmuch as the future is always surprising, the past is always changing.”

James P. Carse

We should be surprised only if the future fails to surprise us, only if the past stops changing.

But perhaps even more importantly, we should stop gatekeeping our professions with absolutes. When I see blanket statements filled with certainty coming from an Expert, I see a lost opportunity. I see someone who could be a significant resource, if only they had the intellectual humility to not close themselves off with the constraints of expertise.

“The problem with Design Thinking…” you’ll hear frequently from some Experts,

“is that [insert blanket statement]”

The problem with blanket statements in a domain and field as diverse and complex as design and Design Thinking… is that your definitions are often merely personal, anchored in a specific set of past experiences, and your experience will never be enough to speak to what others might experience, or what you might find yourself encountering at any moment in the oncoming future.

Consider all of the thousands of people for whom Design Thinking has been transformative, empowering, and incredibly enabling. To those who have experienced radical outcomes from Design Thinking, the certainty of The Expert, who is certain of the universal or inevitable failings of Design Thinking, is a clear indication of their blindness. One thing we should all know to be true as those who occupy the design professions is this: If an output or outcome doesn’t align with the lived experience of the audience, it is at best pointless, and at worst outright harmful. To denigrate an entire field because of your limited experience feels like the ultimate manifestation of expertise, but it is in fact exemplifying the most dangerous constraints that expertise brings along with it, and why The Expert isn’t anything any of us should strive to become as those who occupy complexity.

We should all be careful that we don’t say things that might be in direct contradiction with the lived experience of those without our particular journey of expertise. There’s a way of preventing this simply by being careful with the language we use.

I have been lucky enough to meet a few people who, even though they had accumulated vast stores of knowledge and experience, were capable of escaping the gravity that pulls The Expert into a state of seemingly-justified but dangerous certainty. They are the kind of expert that I trust, because they continue to keep their ears clear, not allowing the stuff filling their heads to squish out and impede their other senses. I say this to make it clear that I do not consider expertise the enemy. I do not think the accumulation of knowledge and experience inevitably results in turning an inquisitive mind into The Expert.

As I was writing this little exploration, I was thinking about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how confidence peaks early in one’s accumulation of knowledge and experience. I was thinking about how many people look at that first peak as the really bad one, because of how unfounded and unearned it is. I was thinking about how much we revere “gurus” who have accumulated so much knowledge and experience, who tend to occupy the highest ranks in our organizations because they’re seen as having the quickest access to the right answers for a given challenge….

I was thinking about how many “Experts” I’ve encountered, whose surety and confidence, because it was anchored in knowledge about an obsolete past, was more hindrance than help…. even though they definitely belonged well along the second rise of that Dunning-Kruger curve…

And I was thinking about the most insightful people I’ve ever encountered… the ones who have the right balance of knowledge, experience, grasp of complexity, and intellectual humility.

Those people don’t impress me with their ability to quickly come up with the right answers. They don’t make blanket judgments that might risk alienating me or leaving me doubting how much they consider their own experiential limits in the face of a rapidly changing environment, because they are careful with their words… because they understand the nuanced, complex, evolving, and “pluriversal” nature of the world.

What most impresses me about truly insightful, knowledgeable, intellectually humble experts isn’t their ability to make accurate judgments. It’s their ability to ask the questions that will help them understand just how much of their knowledge and experience about the past will be relevant for any given challenge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s