Over my life-time I have been on a journey of gaining expertise in the actuarial field, as an IT consultant, as an operations director and now as a leadership development consultant and coach. After-all, expertise gives credibility.
In my quest to learn more and know more, I never really considered the down-side of expertise – surely it can only be a good thing? This morning I was reading a review of a book called the ‘Reflective Practitioner’ by Donald Schön and I was reminded that expertise can actually restrict our thinking. It can narrow our vision. We expect that the challenge we are facing is the same one as the one we saw last week or last month with similar characteristics. In fact, if we have ‘over-learned’ what we know we can become ‘selectively inattentive to phenomena that do not fit’ our past experience . The risk is that we misdiagnose the issue we are facing and presume that we know the answer.
Donald Schon describes a process of ‘reflection in action’.
‘The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behaviour. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation.’ (Schön 1983: 68)
I am often struck by the questions my kids ask. I accept so many things in the world which they question and that certainly challenges me. I am reminded here of the benefits of not accepting or presuming, but seeing each challenge we face with fresh eyes and ‘puzzlement’.
As an authority figure, we are typically expected to know the answers i.e. have the expertise. In leadership, our ability to ask insightful questions is so much more important so we can broaden our field of vision.