Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 52;   December 30, 2015: Call in the Right Expert

Call in the Right Expert


When solving a problem is beyond us, we turn to experts, but sometimes we turn to the wrong experts. That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret)

COL Michael Wyly, USMC (ret). As recounted in Robert Coram's book, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, it was as a major that Wyly was appointed by MAJ GEN Bernard Trainor to be in charge of tactics at the Marine Corps' Amphibious Warfare School. And he was directed to "fix" the tactics curriculum. He consulted an expert, Bill Lind, to find some new thinking about tactics. Lind recommended John Boyd. Wyly invited Boyd to brief his class, and he opened the class to all students. This incident turned out to be a significant link in the chain — or node in the web, really — of events that remade thinking about both tactics and strategy of the U.S. military, and, eventually, industry. Wyly's approach fits the pattern described here: find an expert to recommend an expert. Photo courtesy Norman Fulkerson via his blog, "Modern American Heroes."

Whether it's an application user interface, a piece of equipment, a redesigned process, a marketing strategy, or whatever, when the unexpected occurs, we ask experts to explain how to proceed, or to fix the problem. When they can fix it, that's great, but when they can't, our first thoughts are usually that the expert we called is perhaps not expert enough. That's the easy case, so let's set it aside.

The more difficult case is that the experts we called are skilled enough, and might even be the best there is, but they're expert in the wrong field. How can this happen? What are the consequences? How can we prevent it?

Three important mechanisms can lead to calling the wrong expert.

Limited authority to choose
We can't always choose the expert we need. Budget restrictions, signature authority, and expert availability sometimes dictate the choice.
Control mechanisms and expert availability can both generate risk. Account for this risk in risk plans.
Incorrect diagnosis
Sometimes we diagnose the problem incorrectly, either by honest mistake, or by overestimating our own diagnostic expertise.
Unless you have diagnostic expertise, let experts perform the diagnosis.
Undue influence by experts
Sometimes an expert employee, consultant, or contractor recommends an expert, not on the basis of suitability, but as a favor to the expert being recommended, or because of constraints imposed by the recommender's employer.
Validate recommendations for their objectivity.

Calling in the wrong expert can have serious consequences:

Wasting time and resources
Experts (and all people) are vulnerable to what psychologists call a mental set. If the problem solution lies within the expert's domain of expertise, nobody can address it better. But if the problem solution lies elsewhere, we waste time and resources eliminating all possible solutions within the expert's domain.
Damaging assets
Before the wrong experts deduce that the problem solution lies outside their domains of expertise, damage to assets is possible. The experts might even be the agents of the damage.
The one benefit Sometimes we diagnose the problem
incorrectly, either by honest mistake,
or by overestimating our own
diagnostic expertise
of choosing the wrong expert is the potential to learn the importance of choosing the right expert. That learning can lead us to re-examine the expert-choosing process.

To prevent recurrences, consider two measures. First, avoid diagnosing problems. For example, if the computer can't communicate with the network, don't assume that the computer is defective, or that the network connection is defective. Simply report that the computer can't communicate with the network. Second, consider calling on an expert to tell you what kind of expert you need. In healthcare, this role has been called diagnostician, but the role is emerging in many fields. Before calling an expert, find a "diagnostician" for the relevant problem domain.

Most important, if you know that expert identification isn't working well in your organization, don't guess why. Consult an expert. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEsvSwajfkMTdjZZYner@ChaccISZtfrijpcbXAvzoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

A team raises a wall of a new home sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban DevelopmentOrganizing a Barn Raising
Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning. Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
2nd. Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, U.S. Army (center)What, Why, and How
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, AlaskaProject Improvisation as Group Process
When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
A keyboardOffice Automation
Desktop computers, laptop computers, and tablets have automation capabilities that can transform our lives, but few of us use them. Why not? What can we do about that?
A diagrammatic representation of the Deer Island Waste Water Treatment Plant in Boston HarborProblem Displacement and Technical Debt
The term problem displacement describes situations in which solving one problem creates another. It sometimes leads to incurring technical debt. How? What can we do about it?

See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioComing March 21: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on March 21.
Santa Claus arrives at 57th and Broadway in New York in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day ParadeAnd on March 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IV
Narcissistic behavior at work is more damaging than rudeness or egotism. It leads to faulty decisions that compromise organizational missions. In this part of the series we examine the effects of constant demands for attention and admiration. Available here and by RSS on March 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenddiuWaonmPrMtpBAner@ChackUqEAkZoeFpXtsgRoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.