Where Facts Are Few, Experts Are Many.

I was unable to uncover the origins of this quote, but it is always attributed to Author Donald R Gannon.  Donald is mystery, at least to the people at Google and Wikipedia that collect such information.  Regardless of my ignorance on these matters, I am completely intrigued by this quote.

I work with clients that face difficult technical challenges.  At times, the number of variables involved surpass 100.  People involved in solving the challenge have a wide range of experience, age, education and creativity.  The pressure to resolve the challenge quickly is immense. 

In the rush to resolve simple challenges, a skilled employee applies proven solutions and experiences acceptable results quickly (though not cohesive).  The crisis is averted, management is able to refocus its attention to other areas, and the individual is rewarded for her expertise.  Even when the challenge recurs, all are comfortable with the application of the proven solution.

This approach may make sense to many.  How is this approach modified when we face difficult technical challenges?  Do we switch gears and apply scientific measure and observation to holistically understand the problem prior to developing a solution?  Many times the answer is no.  Time and again I’ve observed manufacturing professionals grasping at solutions before they’ve even set eyes on the completely defined problem.

Where facts are few, experts are many.  The individual responsible for solving the problem proceeds with great confidence in the application of her solution.  She may even make permanent changes to tooling that are difficult and time consuming to reverse.  She may implement a second and third solution, each stacking upon one another, until she experiences (or stumbles upon) the outcome desired.  This manufacturing process will begin to experience a long list of symptoms and failures.  Eventually the operators will decide the problem existed from the beginning with bad design.

Where facts are few, experts are many.  When a group is responsible for solving a challenge we add a human dynamic to this difficult technical challenge.  In typical human fashion, we take two typical paths.

  • Some express their ideas with great confidence and demand others follow their lead due to their expertise.  The volume and intractability of your argument is accepted as a measure of your expertise.
  • Some retreat into their mind, either acquiescing to the more aggressive individuals or, refusing to be ‘run over, sit silently resentful’.  Regardless of the data or information they hold contrary to the experts approach, they refuse to take the risk needed to interject their knowledge.

Where facts are few, experts are many. After the challenge has been resolved, a rewriting of history takes place.  Many involved state with great certainty they knew all along which resolution would be successful.  This seems harmless and is accepted behavior.  Overlooked is the long term decay on your team’s willingness to participate in future problem solving.  Does your team always yield to certain personalities, regardless of their knowledge of details?

Where facts are many, problem solving is often reduced to simple resolution selection.  Individual experts fade and the team’s capacity is revealed.  Solutions are more effective; the frequency or repeat challenges are reduced.

Where facts are many, the team is observed collecting data and information about the challenge.  The team spends a majority of its time understanding the problem and a minority of its time arguing over solution selection.

Perform a self assessment this week.  As challenges reveal themselves in the normal course of business, allow yourself to monitor and measure your teams approach.

  • Does problem identification happen immediately or take time to unfold?
  • Do one or two individuals have all of the answers?
  • Is the team prepared to ‘un-do’ or reverse the chosen solution?
  • What is the measurement of the challenge?

Kirk Wiley Chief Operating Officer, The Phoenix Group, Kirk at LinkedIn

Bill Shinskey Director, Organizational Development & Training, The Phoenix Group, Bill at LinkedIn

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