If you think this can happen only to us ordinary folks, think again. This happened to one of the most confident man that ever lived: Lyndon Johnson. He was very impressed with the brain power of the team that John F. Kennedy had assembled after becoming the President.
After attending his first cabinet meeting, Johnson went to see his mentor, Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House, to tell him about how impressed he was with the Kennedy team. Johnson was most impressed with the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara who, using statistical methods, had improved the efficiency of the bombers during WWII. After the war, Mcnamara and few of the members in his team, known as the “Whiz Kids" who started their business together, were hired by Henry Ford II to help rebuild the Ford Motor company.
“Well Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
As David Halberstam says in his book “The Best and the Brightest” that “it is my favorite story in the book, for it underlines the the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for few of them came after Vietnam.”
Next time if you are ever in presence of an individual or a group that is very smart, probe deeper to see whether their intelligence is born out of their academic prowess and accomplishments or from real world experience. Is the individual or a group approaching the situation only from their expertise or also from considering diverse viewpoints with people who have had real world experience? You need to know this before trusting the decisions that are made by these smart people.
One of the traps that we and organizations often fall into is something known as expertthink (where people make decisions that experts will agree with). This is similar to group think (where people make a decision that everyone will agree with--- going along to get along), but more insidious, as Cynthia Barton Rabe in her book "The Innovation Killer" refers to experthink as "Groupthink-on-Steroids."
Experthink can not only adversely affect the decision making process in the political world, but also in the business world. Experts are well regarded since, based on their experience and knowledge, they can see patterns and determine what is important from unimportant; they don't have to reinvent the wheel when they come across a problem that they have seen before. This works fine if the problem is exactly the same, but what if it isn't?
This is when experthink can lead to blind spots that can result in major problems, if not major disasters. Often past is a good predictor for the future except when conditions change even slightly where past may not be a good predictor. This is where experts get too wedded to their expertise rather than looking at the problem with a fresh perspective. You can't blame them since they have become adept at making quick decisions that seem to always work. But when the conditions are not that similar and the experts view with the prism of what they know, this leads to problem in politics as we saw with the Kennedy team regarding Vietnam; in business with Blackberry for not seeing the threat from Apple; with innovation within companies since it requires thinking differently that we are not accustomed to and is fraught with risk of failure.
How do you safeguard against Experthink?
1. Ask simple questions
Smart people are very good at answering difficult questions. What often trips them are simple questions. A very good example of this is the Ted Kennedy interview that I wrote about in my blog.
2. Assemble multiple teams with totally different perspectives
Encourage people with different opinions to defend their ideas with pros and cons so you can assess which option to consider having looked at several alternatives to avoid groupthink and experthink.
3. Can the solution withstand the scrutiny by non-experts?
Experts will understand what they are doing but can you explain it to non-experts without using any jargon and they understand it and can ask relevant questions? If the solution can withstand scrutiny by both experts and non-experts then you can green light the solution.
4. Will you be able to explain failure?
Do you know how to handle questions if it fails? Can you withstand the criticism that is likely to follow?
5. Do you have the right culture for making good decisions?
You can do everything right but if you don't have a culture that allows good decisions to be made with looking at multiple alternatives very carefully where everyone's opinion is not only welcome but sought; where there is psychological safety for having different opinions.
Decision making is critical to success in politics, business and in life. The thing that has changed today from the is that these decisions have to be made often and faster than ever before due to the fast changing world we live in that keeps getting more complex. quickly. How you go about making decision is under your control. It is very important that you look at the problem closely and not succumb to exp