Why experts are partially blind – and 5 ways to ‘restore sight’

Partially blindHave you ever sat in a meeting and heard two attendees discuss the same topic on entirely parallel tracks?  Or perhaps you have been in meetings where an attendee keeps bringing the conversation back to a clearly inappropriate or irrelevant perspective.  Both situations are confusing and embarrassing for the other attendees.  Why do intelligent and competent people have such conversations?  Why do they miss the point so badly?  Why do they continue, even when the disconnect is obvious to others?

The old saying, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, gives a clue to one of the key causes of the ‘parallel conversation’ problem.  Our professional training and experience colours the perspective we bring to any related context.  This is particularly so for deep and successful experts.  Their narrowness of perspective is reinforced not only by confidence gained from success but also by the need to defend and preserve their reputation and ego.

Such expertise based narrowness of perspective is a significant problem during the Observe stage of Adaptive Iteration.   Adaptive Iteration is applicable when the situation is unpredictable and emergent, precisely the situations where preconceptions and narrow perspectives are most risky.  During the Observe stage we need to be open-minded, empathetic and sensitive to both detail and trends.

Does this mean that experts should not be involved in the Observe stage of Adaptive Iteration?  Not necessarily.  However, it does mean that we need to think explicitly about how we organise for and go about observing our experiments, not only to reduce the potential for expertise bias, but also to reduce the risk of other forms of unconscious biases (more on these in later blog entries).

The types of things we can do to reduce the potential for observation biases include:

  • T-shaped people:  Include people on the team who have not only deep expertise but also broad interests and knowledge and the ability to collaborate with people with other types of expertise.  These are becoming known as ‘T-shaped people.
  • Multiple perspectives:  Explicitly observe the situation (experiment) from multiple points of view.  The objective here is to quieten our unconscious biases by adopting one or more conscious biases.  I will explore a variety of possible perspectives in a future blog post.
  • Diverse team:  Include people on the team with a range of expertise and from a range of backgrounds.  Diversity reduces the potential for observational bias only if the team dynamics enables the diverse observations to be surfaced, discussed and synthesized.  The ability to do this depends on a mixture of structure, process and personality.
  • Prepared mind:  Train (prepare) your team to be a better observers.  As Louis Pasteur is reported to have said, “in the field of observation, chance favours the prepared mind”.  Techniques for preparing the mind include learning how to suspend judgement, to implicitly adopt multiple perspectives, to appreciate the impact and role of context, and to see the underlying systems dynamics.  Interestingly, research is starting to suggest that our ability to have empathy (critical when observing many human interactions) can be increased by reading emotionally engaging fiction.
  • Focus on data:  Where possible capture rich data to lead, inform or validate human observations.  The complex, unpredictable and emergent nature of situations where Adaptive Iteration is applicable means that is usually not possible to rely solely on data for our observations.  Nevertheless, some situations are amenable to supplementing observations with techniques such as video recordings or with the analysis of (often large) data sets to reveal emerging patterns, trends and relationships.

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