September 29, 2011

Remember what your expertise is

My former advisor and good friend Pol Spanos has a great saying: “intuition is a good servant but a terrible master.”

It’s not because you’re good somewhere that you’re good everywhere

Sometimes your knowledge and skills will transfer from your subject of expertise to another. Just like the aerobic capacity that, say, a cyclist develops on the bike might serve him to also run well, our use of logic and other tools for solving problems, for instance, will transfer well from one subject matter to another.

But sometimes knowledge and skills don’t transfer well. An expert cardiologist’s opinion on whether oscillations in the sun’s magnetic field have an impact on climate isn’t necessarily more accurate than yours or mine (apologies to you, dear reader, if you are an expert in astronomy). In fact, an expert cardiologist might not be more knowledgeable about mental illnesses than most of us.

It’s important to recognize these limitations because, first, we tend to conveniently avoid thinking about them, and second they have a direct impact on your thinking as a whole. People that are used to be in a position of authority—such as a college professor teaching a subject in which they are a world expert—tend to get used to being the power figure. Place this individual in a brand new situation, and they might display the same authority. They might speak with the same assurance and silence their critics with the same zeal as if they would if they were dealing with their subject of expertise. But they don’t have the credentials to do this here.

Know the limitations of your expertise, following your intuition cautiously

Know what your limitations – in doubt, err on the side of caution

To illustrate, let’s put this in a 2×2. One axis is reality, the other is your perception. Then for any given subject, you’re either knowledgeable or you’re not. If you know your place—either as knowledgeable or ignorant—then you’re safe (in a green box). If you are unaware that you are knowledgeable (orange box), it’s a shame because you aren’t fully using your abilities. It is a shame, but not necessarily dangerous. The real dangerous part is when someone is ignorant but doesn’t realize it (red box). Do yourself a favor, don’t be that guy.

Differentiate facts from guesses

So whenever you’re approaching a new situation, it’s probably healthy to use a great deal of caution. Going back to Spanos’s saying, before your trust your intuition on a new subject, you should test it. That is, remember what you’re good at. Otherwise, you might become the servant of a bad master.

A practical way to do this in our approach is to look at the analysis you develop for each branch in your issue tree and to clearly label which bits are facts and which are only guesses. In fact, when making recommendations to your boss, spell this out explicitly. This is a form of intellectual honesty that might come across as surprising—in a day and age where people tend to self-label themselves experts on anything and where looking assured is half the battle—but hopefully, it will be refreshing. Otherwise, you might consider changing your boss.