Know when to discard experts

Know when to discard experts

Apr 17, 2012

If you spend any time on this site, you know I’m pretty big on engaging others into solving problems. That’s because, in my experience, teams are smarter than individuals.But there’s also value in thinking about how you compose your teams. Experts are helpful in some settings, such as when you’ve already made some progress in your analysis and you're ready to converge onto a subset of options, when you've already identified how to move forward and need someone who is really good at that, or when you're testing hypotheses (experts can be better than novices at seeking falsification).

However, experts might not be so helpful at the beginning of your analysis. That’s because they’re not ‘dumb’ enough for genuinely creative thinking.

In some settings, discard experts

In the early stage of answering a question, you want to be as MECE as possible. Of special interest here is your pushing your thinking to be as collectively exhaustive as you can make it. (This is also called divergent thinking, striving to maximize / refusing to satisfice or preferring exploration over exploitation, depending on who you talk with). An important enabler of doing this innovative thinking is to relax assumptions, to stop thinking in the same way as everyone does in that knowledge area.You can do so by giving yourself license to ask "what if?," and that works better if you’re a novice. In fact, one can argue that this might work only if you’re a novice, simply because novices in a specific discipline haven't been trained to stop asking the "dumb" questions that experts have been trained to ignore. In a way, novices bring a freshness of perspective that can help you the way analogous thinking can help your creativity.

And this brings us to another finding: When it comes to finding solutions, experts are so conditioned in their thinking that they might only produce incremental solutions and fail to generate radically innovative ones (see Finkelstein et al, p. 33).

Now, I’m not arguing against using experts; I’m arguing that you should know when you can best use them. Enlisting them is another tool in your toolbox, just ensure that you use it for fitting tasks.


Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Christian, B. and T. Griffiths (2016). Algorithms to live by: The computer science of human decisions, Macmillan.

Cowley, M. and R. M. Byrne (2004). Chess Masters’ Hypothesis Testing. Proceedings of 26th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, CogSci, Citeseer.

Finke, R. A., et al. (1992). Creative cognition: Theory, research, and applications, MIT press Cambridge, MA, p. 33.

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