the expertise trap

September 26, 2019

Corey Phelps is a Professor of Strategy and Associate Dean of Executive Education at Mcgill University. He is also the Co-Author of Cracked It!

When faced with problems, we mostly look at past patterns and seek advice, sometimes even from those who may be experts in other fields. How does ‘expertise’ help in such situations? And how can experts find the right solutions even in areas outside their domain?

We all solve problems. We could not make it through a day without tackling the steady flow of challenges life throws at us: “What’s the most efficient route to avoid a traffic jam and get to work on time?” “Where do I take my out-of-town friend to dinner?” “How do I lose the pounds I put on during the holidays?”

Technology can help solve our problems, but not always. Problem-solving is a dominant form of how we think and one of our most complex intellectual activities. It is a core part of what makes us human.

When experts are paid to solve problems

While we all solve problems, managers and consultants are professionals—they are hired and paid to do so.

Iconoclastic management scholar Henry Mintzberg, one of the first to study what managers do, found they spend much of their time solving problems. Similarly, leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman recently surveyed over 300,000 managers and found that problem-solving was the second most important competency, regardless of function or level. And the OECD Survey of Adult Skills revealed that complex problem-solving skills are essential for fast-growing, highly-skilled managerial, professional, and technical occupations.

Management consulting firms, such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain, exist to solve business problems. As Harvard professor Clayton Christensen recently observed, “Management consulting’s fundamental business model has not changed in more than 100 years.

It has always involved sending smart outsiders into organizations for a finite period and asking them to recommend solutions for the most difficult problems confronting their clients.”

According to an internal McKinsey staff paper, problem-solving is viewed as the most important skill for success in the firm. As part of their recruiting, McKinsey management consultants carefully assess the problem-solving skills of their applicants through anxiety-inducing case interviews: during the interview, candidates are given a short description of a challenge facing a disguised client company and tasked with solving the problem on the spot.

So how well do professionals solve challenging problems? Inside of their respective fields, experts excel. But outside of these fields? Not so much.

Within their domain, experts have advantages

Research has found that for problems within their domain of expertise, experts have advantages over novices: they can better recognize and understand issues, often by using analogies to past problems.

Over the years, experts develop in-depth knowledge within a particular domain through extensive study and practice, and have mentally organized their knowledge for easy recall and use. Managers and consultants typically specialize in particular functional or industrial areas for much of their careers, developing deep and richly-layered expertise. Experts use more effective problem-solving strategies within these areas of expertise, more carefully evaluate potential solutions against constraints, and more effectively monitor their problem-solving progress by refining solutions.

These advantages explain why seasoned tax accountants, when compared to novice accountants, can more readily draw on their understanding of tax law and accounting conventions to solve a particular client’s tax problem. They also explain why a lean manufacturing expert can walk into a manufacturing plant and quickly spot opportunities to increase efficiency by reducing work-in-process inventory that plant employees missed.

 Research has found that for problems within their domain of expertise, experts have advantages over novices: they can better recognize and understand issues, often by using analogies to past problems.

Outside of their domain, experts make problems worse

Though experts are better problem-solvers than novices within their areas of expertise, when they tackle problems outside their expertise—or when conditions in their fields change—they often perform like novices. Or worse.

Experts’ rich and detailed mental models often constrain their ability to understand problems and search for solutions when working in new territory. Mental models are rigid and resistant to change, particularly when associated with successful outcomes. In other words, experts become trapped by their expertise.

Psychologist and Rice University Professor Erik Dane finds that the more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world. Compared to novices, experts are overconfident in their ability to understand problems outside their field, leading them to develop worse solutions.

In situations that seem familiar, expert performance is poor

Reasoning by analogy also leads experts to develop poor solutions when faced with new-but-seemingly-familiar situations. When reasoning by analogy, a person starts with a new, unfamiliar target problem to solve. The person then considers other source settings he or she knows well and compares them to the target through a process of similarity mapping. By finding a source problem that has similar characteristics as the target, the person identifies a candidate solution that solved or could have solved the source problem. The process can be summed up like this: “I’ve seen something like this before, so what worked there may work here.”

While analogical reasoning can be a valuable source of insight and creativity, it can lead to poor solutions when problem solvers develop analogies based on superficial similarities instead of deep, causal traits. When problem-solvers have deep experience in a particular domain, their knowledge is salient and easy to recall, which can lead them to pay more attention to characteristics of the new setting that seem similar and ignore those that are different, and to develop superficial analogies and poor solutions.

Experience can be a poor guide when working outside your area of expertise or when the nature of your work changes.

 The lesson? Experience can be a poor guide when working outside your area of expertise or when the nature of your work changes. But there are three safeguards that will help you avoid these pitfalls:

Think like a consultant

Consultants are not immune to bias, but, as outsiders, they do not have a vested interest in solutions and recommendations. There may be a hypothesis on the table, but it is not their hypothesis. Being neutral does not eliminate biases, but it does minimize the political and financial pressures that make them worse.

Work in teams

Consultants work in teams and are trained to challenge each other. The core values of top consultancies, for instance, include a non-hierarchical atmosphere and the obligation to dissent. These guiding principles help ensure that colleagues will call out team members who may be blind to their own assumptions, worldviews, or long-held beliefs. The spirit of collaboration that such social norms foster is an integral component of problem-solving.

Practise PSAC

The Problem-Solving Approach of Consulting (PSAC) teaches consultants to follow a disciplined process for all problems. First, develop a well-specified statement of the problem. Next, use theoretical frameworks and logic to structure the problem by decomposing it into all possible solutions. Third, conduct analyses of the potential solutions to identify the most impactful and feasible option. Finally, sell the solution to stakeholders by starting with the recommendation followed by the supporting rationale for it.

These safeguards do not guarantee that experts will not fall prey to the numerous pitfalls of problem-solving. But they do greatly reduce the risks and increase the chances of coming up with valuable solutions. Following these practises can help you become top in your field.