The Limits of Experts

By Andrew Bass | Blog, Managing Uncertainty

In starting this blog, I reviewed a series of newsletters I wrote over the last three years and thought about the ones I enjoyed the most, and then thought about what my clients seem to be most concerned about at the moment. A theme emerged: managing in ‘messy’, unstructured, fast-changing, ambiguous times and situations.

If you are a leader in any organization today, you have to deal with the messiness – what help is available from experts?

Let’s separate out two types. The first type are masters of well-bounded subjects such as finance (which of these projects offer the most favourable risk adjusted ROI and how should we fund them?), operations management (how can I reduce inventory in this factory?), civil engineering (how long will this motorway intersection last before it needs major maintenance?) or employment law (does this employee have a claim and if so what’s the best response?),

The second type of experts talk about unbounded, messy subjects such as economics (will there be a double dip?), business strategy (should we move into this market or that one?), public policy (what is the best way to fund the arts?) or organizational politics (how do we unite these separate fiefdoms behind our new strategic direction?). Those in the second camp have a much lower hit-rate, because there is much less ‘science’ to guide them.

The expertise of the first camp can be sophisticated, and the experts are clever and highly qualified. However they often struggle with ambiguity, so there are real limits to how far they will be able to help you with messy problems – in fact they’ll probably shy away from them. On the other hand, the second domain does seem to attract more than its fair share of blowhards (being able to forcefully expound an opinion on something no-one else is sure about either has proven itself as a strategy for getting on it life).

If you are an intelligent leader grappling with a messy world, you’ll be frustrated by the first group, and be annoyed or left cold by the second. What’s to be done? That is a major theme I intend to explore in the category of managing uncertainty.

© 2011. Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.