How Your Own Expertise can Blind You

Author: Sydney Finkelstein Source: Harvard Business Review

Expertise sounds like an unqualified good in professional contexts. Companies associate it with high performance and leadership capability and seek it when hiring for key roles. But in studying top executives over the past decade, I’ve come to understand that expertise can also severely impede performance, in two important ways.

Consider the case of Matthew Broderick, who led the Homeland Security Operations Center when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, in August 2005. A brigadier general with 30 years’ experience running emergency operations, including a stint at the helm of the U.S. Marine Corps National Command Center, he seemed like the perfect person to oversee the response to the storm. “Been there, done that,” he said when describing his qualifications for the role.

Yet Broderick didn’t trigger key elements of the rescue-and-relief efforts until more than a day after Katrina hit. He underestimated the extent of the catastrophe with tragic consequences, owing in part to his expert mindset, which prevented him from appreciating that adept as he was at handling crises in military contexts, he had little experience with natural disasters in the civilian realm. Trained to verify every fact, thereby avoiding decisions made in the “fog of war,” he failed to recognize that in this case speed was more important. He relied too heavily on military intelligence instead of trusting local or state sources. And because of his extensive Marine Corps expertise, he assumed—wrongly—that key federal emergency officials would automatically report information up the chain of command. He seems to have believed that his brilliance in one area would render him competent in another.

This type of overconfidence is one form of what I call the expertise trap. Another is when leaders’ deep knowledge and experience leaves them incurious, blinkered, and vulnerable—even in their own fields. Motorola executives in the 1990s became so obsessed with the Six Sigma continuous improvement methodology, in which they had developed considerable expertise, that they missed the significance of the industry’s shift to digital technologies and fell dramatically behind their competitors. A decade or so later, when Apple first released its iPhone, technology experts were quick to call it a failure, with then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who’d been steeped in the company’s PC and connected computing business, proclaiming that a device without the traditional QWERTY keypad had no chance of garnering significant market share. More recently, large retailers have struggled to compete with Amazon because senior executives have relied too much on their established expertise as merchandisers and on familiar tactics such as store design, closures, and alterations to the marketing mix. In each of these cases experts assumed that what they knew was right and always would be. As reality shifted, that closed-mindedness led to poor execution and subpar results.

When we begin to identify as experts, our outlook can narrow, both in daily work and in times of crisis. We become reluctant to admit mistakes and failings, thus hindering our development. We distance ourselves from those “beneath” us, making it harder to earn their affection and trust. And as the dynamics of our businesses change, we risk being bypassed or replaced by colleagues on the rise, outsiders adept at learning new things, or artificial intelligence algorithms that can perform rote tasks faster and better than we can. Over time the very expertise that led to our success can leave us feeling unhappy, unsatisfied, and stuck.

Have you fallen into a creative rut? Do you feel “old” and out of touch in your job? Do others seem uncomfortable challenging your assumptions and ideas? Are market developments beginning to take you by surprise? These are just a few of the warning signs that you’ve fallen into the expertise trap. (For others, see the sidebar below.) The solution is clear: Rededicate yourself to learning and growth. Turn back the clock and rediscover just a bit of what the Buddhists call beginner’s mind.

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