The word “expert” can be a dangerous thing. While it gives those that deserve the title due respect and recognition, it can cause us to close our ears to good ideas from other sources.
I was reminded of this when I recently attended a Sustainability conference for the HS2 project. With the best part of £43 billion riding on this project and a complex network of suppliers, I was struck with the question “how do they make the best decisions?” HS2 will be reliant on a wide range of expertise and they will have done their homework for sure, but it did get me thinking about how do they, or any of us, really know who the expert is?
I can recall an occasion where someone’s lack of expertise on a subject enabled them to have laser-like insight. A few years ago my wife accompanied me to a football match. Now this isn’t something she’d usually do as she has approximately zero interest or understanding of the rules. Mid-game she turned to me and said “if those guys who are near the goal (defenders) were closer to those guys in the middle of the field (midfielders) there wouldn’t be any room for the other team to play and score a goal”. She was totally right, it was a genius observation that came from someone I didn’t expect to ever make such a statement. Without getting bogged down in detail or dogma she could see the wood for the trees. My initial reaction was to dismiss this observation as she couldn’t possibly add to my own extensive knowledge acquired after many years of watching my team lose – or could she?
Another example; many years ago I heard a story about expertise which continues to chime with me to this day. It was about an engineering giant. This company prides itself on innovation, precision and excellence. That level of reputation comes with an automatic status of unparalleled expertise. That’s great, but it can mean that if you’re seen to be at the pinnacle of performance, no-one takes the risk of advising you on how to do things differently, or better. So the company decided alter their procurement policies where suppliers were given procurement objectives instead of a specification. This led to a wave of innovation that their supply chain had previously been (perhaps) too intimidated to pitch. That foresight – to free the company from the restrictions of being the only expert – has revolutionised their supply chain, and their manufacturing process.
That thing of responding to great ideas, not solely to expert voices is something I want to harness for IEMA HQ and the membership. At IEMA, some of the best ideas I’ve heard since I arrived here last year have come from junior, non-specialist staff (not all, of course; our specialists are doing some amazing work). The current trial membership scheme was devised by some junior members of my team and I’m very proud to see how they’ve made it a success. There are currently over 200 on the trail scheme and it's growing rapidly . Similarly, the feedback and ideas offered by members are likely to transform areas of our work, and I’m happy to hear any ideas at any time. I’m a big advocate of “there’s no such thing as a stupid idea”. Expertise (mostly) comes from experience, and no-one knows what it’s like to be a member better than a member so hope that you feel that you can make suggestions. Why not get in touch at email@example.com with your thoughts, or post on our LinkedIn group?
Our consultation on Vision 2020 led to a number of game changes for IEMA and it made it very clear that we need to get better at listening to our members.
As for the football thing; my wife hasn’t gone to another match with me – or had any further spectacular insights on the game - since, but that one time was enough for me to know that the best insights don’t always come from the most obvious places. If I am on my game, to listen with a healthy dose of humility will be far more productive for IEMA than any self-appointed expertise. By the way, my team (Rotherham United) lost.
Posted on 22nd August 2014
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