Tag Archives: expertise

The Experts Can’t Figure It Out – Now What Do We Do? (We Still Don’t Know What Caused the Financial Crisis of 2008)

What do we do when the experts simply can’t figure it out?

Here’s a simple question:  are there failing companies?  Yes.  Are there less-than-excellent organizations?  Yes.  Do you do everything you could do, should do, as well as you possibly could – as well as it needs to be done?  The answer, I’m pretty sure, is no.

So, “less-than-excellent” is all around us.  As we reflect on failures and deficiencies, we ask the next question:  why are we not better?  Why are our companies, our organizations, our own lives, not better?

Atul Gawande hinted at it when he wrote:

We have just two reasons that we may fail. 
The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works.  There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop. The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly. 
(Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto:  How to Get Things Right).

Or, to put it in simple terms:  we don’t know; or, when/if we do know, we don’t do.  Back, yet again, to the “knowing-doing gap.”

Now, on the “we don’t know” part of this equation….  Sometimes, we have not yet learned.  On the news last night, there was a report on an amazing breakthrough drug for lung cancer.  It looks like it might actually work, and they profiled a woman (with two young children still at home) who was on her death bed, and she is practically back from the dead.  We now know something we did not know, and she is alive, maybe for quite a while longer.  Wonderful.

And there are, we suspect, so many more such wonderful discoveries around the corner.

But, as much as we have come to rely on the breakthrough discoveries and insights of “experts” – they simply don’t yet know everything.

Which brings me to the paragraph of the day.  This came in on my AtlanticWire Five Best Columns e-mail this morning.  The article referenced is:  What Caused the Financial Crisis? Don’t Ask An Economist.  I end this post with the paragraph summary of the article from the AtlanticWire.  And I remind you that there are some questions for which we simply do not know the answers — yet.  And the more complex the question, the bigger the problem this presents.  It really is quite a paragraph on lack of consensus, the limits of experts and their expertise, and a little on the drawbacks of this contentious age we live in.

Here’s the paragraph (AtlanticWire here; the article linked to from the FiscalTimes here):

Mark Thoma on the disabling divide in macroeconomics  “What caused the financial crisis that is still reverberating through the global economy?” asks Mark Thoma in The Fiscal Times. “Last week’s 4th Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany–a meeting that brings Nobel laureates in economics together with several hundred young economists from all over the world–illustrates how little agreement there is on the answer to this important question.” Economists offered all sorts of conflicting answers like “the banks, the Fed, too much regulation, too little regulation, Fannie and Freddie, moral hazard from too-big-to-fail banks, bad and intentionally misleading accounting, irrational exuberance, faulty models, and the ratings agencies.” This lack of consensus among the world’s most renowned economists is troubling, Thoma writes, because we cannot find a solution to a problem we do not agree on. Perhaps we could try to fix all the potential problems cited. “But that unnecessarily constrains a whole range of activities in the hope that we limit the particular behaviors at the root of the crisis. That’s an inefficient way to fix the problem. And in any case, how do you proceed when some of the causes cited by economists are at odds with each other?” The truth is, macroeconomists have not yet agreed on a single model for the economy. Because economic theories are applied to historical, not experimental, data, economists can come up with multiple theories that explain the past equally well. “This problem is not just of concern to macroeconomists; it has contributed to the dysfunction we are seeing in Washington as well. When Republicans need to find support for policies such as deregulation, they can enlist prominent economists–Nobel laureates perhaps–to back them up. Similarly, when Democrats need support for proposals to increase regulation, they can also count noted economists in their camp.” Thoma says he hoped that a cycle-interrupting cataclysm like the 2008 crisis would provide enough new macroeconomic data to support one theory over another–he thinks it supports demand side over supply side. In fact, economists have just used it to back up their previously held positions and “dig in their heels,” making our debates “larger and more contentious than ever.”

“Representing The Institution and Bringing A Vision” – Christine Lagarde Describes her Role at the IMF

Christine Lagarde - new Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund

Before she was selected as the new Managing Director, Ms. Christine Lagarde, a candidate for the position of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), made the following statement to the IMF Executive Board on June 23, 2011.  You can read her entire letter here.  Here are some key highlights.

As a candidate, I have listened carefully over the last few weeks to the messages conveyed to me by a large part of the membership and I would like to lay out some thoughts of mine and address some of the issues:

1. Management: the three duties of MD

If elected, I am committed to fulfil, with your support and active engagement, the three key duties of a MD: to chair the Board; to manage the staff; and to represent the institution.

Duty 1: Chairing the Board

To lay the proper foundations of such a relationship, if elected, I would call for a Board retreat before the recess.

Duty 2: Managing the staff

I am well aware that recent events have left open wounds. I know that John’s departure, coming as it does at the very worst of times, will leave a big hole. The incoming MD must take pains to show the outside world that this great institution is not only leading in terms of expertise, but also in terms of integrity and work ethics. We must consolidate and, if needed, restore staff pride in working at the IMF, to get us through the healing process.

…only strong leadership will help us overcome silo-mentality, achieve diversity, and gain in cohesion and coherence.

We collectively must focus on serving both our membership and the higher goal of the Fund, and be less inward-looking.

Duty 3: Representing the institution and bringing a vision

The MD has to lead by example, consistent with the values of integrity, independence, and discretion. The MD shall also be the loyal and strong voice of the whole membership when representing the Fund, especially in delivering messages, speaking the truth to members, be them small or large.
To conclude, should you entrust me with the challenging task of MD, I would strive, over the next five years, to build a Fund that would be adapted to a changing world; responsive, ready and able to meet all challenges, both foreseeable and unforeseeable; cooperative, listening and coordinating effectively with all stakeholders, and continuously striving to build consensus; legitimate and even-handed, to reflect a changing world.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Members of the Executive Board, thank you for your attention

Note the clear intentions:

To “lead in terms of expertise, and work ethics;” to lead with integrity; to gain in cohesion and coherence.”

I suspect that this is one of the more challenging new positions on the planet, especially after the very public scandal of the man she replaces.  But she provides a pretty good reminder to all leaders with this letter:  leaders are to manage the staff, represent the organization well and honorably, and bring a vision to the entire enterprise.

For the sake of many, let’s hope that Ms. Lagarde can live up to and fulfill these intentions, and set an example for other leaders in the process.

The Mark Of True Expertise – Knowing What to Edit Out (Insight From Architect Frank Gehry)

When do you know that you have attained a level of skill that would qualify you as an “expert?’  When is expertise genuine expertise?

I think about this a lot partly because I feel so inadequate in so much of what I tackle.  I teach, I speak, I write – and yet, I feel that I miss the mark as often as I come close to hitting it.

A while back, I heard a radio report on the new studio producing movies – with wrestlers from the WWE.  One comment was really revealing – the wrestlers show up on time, and do what they are told to do.  Directors can count on them – they “hit their marks.”  They learned that from the rigid discipline of putting on a show night after night.  Expertise –the best at what they do.  (Note: this is not a comment on the legitimacy or sophistication level of professional wrestling.  It is a comment about work!).

(image by CLAUDIA URIBE)

Here’s something else that helps me think about expertise.  It comes from a terrific set of short profiles from The Atlantic.  It is prompted by these remarks by Frank Gehry, renowned architect.  “A winner of the Pritzker Prize, Gehry has staked a claim as perhaps the most acclaimed architect of his day.

So quite often, the first sketches are incredibly, uncannily close to the final building—I don’t understand that, really. Compared with when I was just starting out, I’m faster now. I’m better. I know where the bullshit is. I’m pretty good at editing it out before I let it go too far.

So, what is expertise.  It is “knowing where the bullshit is – and editing it out” pretty quickly.

Maybe, until you can spot and reject the “bullshit,” you have no genuine claim to expertise.

The Curse of “The Era of The Short Cut” – Or, We Need More Genuine Experts; You Know, With Actual Expertise

Expertise (noun):  the skill of an expert


So I’ve been thinking about expertise.

Let’s start with this great quote from Scorecasting:

Fans are rarely so deluded as to suggest that they could match the throwing arm of Peyton Manning or defend Kobe Bryant or return Roger Federer’s serve, but somehow every fan with a ticket of a flat-screen television is convinced he could call a game as well as the schmo (or worse) wearing the zebra-striped shirt.  Officials are accurate – uncannily so – in their calls…  They’ve devoted years of training to their craft, developed a vast range of skills and experiences, and made it through a seemingly endless winnowing process to get to the highest level…  they tend to be driven, and smart, and successful in their other careers as well.
Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim:  Scorecasting — The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won

The point of this quote is clear:  we all think we are experts in certain areas – areas in which we have no actual expertise at all.

And I think this plays into a trait of this era – call it the era of the short cut.  We all want to take short cuts – and I use the “we “ inclusively.  I want to take short cuts, just like you do.  (don’t you?!)

And, maybe, Google has made it worse.

Here’s what I mean.  We hear one interview; we read one book; we do a Google search and we read just a few entries; and we begin to think we “know” that subject, that issue.

And we don’t.

I remember a theology professor back in my Graduate School days.  One student commented that he had read “everything written on speaking on tongues” (a big issue in the late 1960s, early 1970s).  This professor paused, and slowly just eviscerated the student.  He asked:  “have you read this book, and this book, and this book?” (and he just overflowed with titles).  The student had not only not read them, he had clearly not heard of them.  And then the clincher:  the teacher asked:  “have you read everything in German on this subject?  How about in Spanish?  In French?” By the time the object lesson was over, I came away with the sad reality that I may never be a genuine expert on any subject.

So… if we are not genuine experts, then we have our work cut out for us.  Here are some suggestions:

#1 – Keep studying, keep learning.  There is so much to learn, in every area.

#2 – Develop a dose of confident humility.  Yes, be confident about what you do know – but be very aware, and thus humble, about what you do not know.  Or, as William Taylor puts it in Practically Radical (borrowing from others), cultivate humbitionHumbition:  the right mix of aspiration and humility.

#3 – Be careful about your claims of expertise.  It takes a while to become an expert – a long while – to become a genuine expert.

#4 – Learn who the real experts are, and read their words, read interviews with them, read their books….  Learn from the best/right/smartest people.

{And then, ignore this entire blog post.  Because, it is pretty clear that a young college student with not much experience under his belt can invent Facebook and demonstrate all of the expertise any one could ever hope for.  (Doesn’t that just drive you crazy!)}

The Value of True Expertise — Knowing what’s wrong, knowing how to fix it

It’s been a bad week in the Mayeux household.  Two nights ago, I drove my wife’s car.  That evening, it would not start.  I broke the battery!  Then, I washed a load of clothes.  The washing machine would not spin.  I broke the washing machine!  And then, I used my hair dryer.  I broke the hair dryer (it just quit working!)  Yes, I am jinxed — at least this week.  Don’t let me anywhere near any piece of machinery you own!

Well, we bought a new battery.  And we had another hair dryer.  And, we called the Sears repair number, and a repair man came to fix our washing machine.  It took him about…3 seonds to figure out the problem, and on top of the flat fee, it was only a little more money, for one replacement part, to get it working.  I marveled at his instantaneous diagnosis.  I asked him how long he had being doing this.  He said about 24 years.  He knew what to look for, he found it, and he know how to fix it.  He provided a perfect example of a person with expertise.

Well, I don’t know any machine that well.  But I got to thinking — I do know one thing almost that well, and what I don’t know, my blogging team members do know (especially Bob Morris, who has reviewed over 1900 books for Amazon.com, and other sites).  Here’s what I know:  if you name a business issue, I (and my colleagues) know a book — usually, the best book — to help you with that issue.   And if you read our blog long enough, you will see plenty of titles that offer a great deal about the most pressing business issues that you are likely to face.


By the way, you might want to check out this post:
Build Your Own Strategic Reading Plan — or, How Should You Pick Which Business Book(s) to Read?