Several years ago, I participated in a meeting of “creative geniuses” in which we developed what we all felt was a can’t-miss idea for our company. The exercise of scoring the idea across rigorous, pre-defined idea screening criteria all but confirmed our belief: this should have proven to be the flagship idea within our innovation portfolio.
The specific idea we had is not worth describing here. It is unimportant to the lesson learned. This idea was spawned by a roomful of romantic optimists, people who yearned to revive a business line experiencing diminishing returns. As it turned out, these people (again, of which I was one) were not grounded or well-versed enough in the complexities and limitations inherent in their ideas.
Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize winning physicist famously stated, “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes that can be made, in a narrow field.” Our idea was doomed to fail before it was ever prototyped or tested in market, for “The Expert” had not been invited to the ideation session.
Eight Traits of The Expert Archetype
Seasoned innovators understand the importance of involving subject matter experts early and often in innovation processes. This includes, but is not limited to, technical experts, attorneys, coders, engineers, actuaries, and financial professionals. In theory, it seems obvious that these folks should be present when customer pain points are articulated, when ideas are born, and when concepts are built. In practice, however, it is precisely these experts who are required to stay back to keep an organization’s core operations running while innovators creatively envision its future. This conflict makes it difficult for innovators to get representatives from these functions to fully participate in innovation. Innovators inherently understand this difficulty, but they haven’t all (yet) learned the lesson of the importance of getting The Expert in the room.
Let’s explore eight traits of The Expert archetype to better understand where in innovation her participation is most critical:
- The Expert will thrive when utilizing her deep subject matter expertise to develop solutions to well-defined problems.
- The Expert best understands the methodologies for testing and learning in her domain.
- The Expert will work with “The Builder,” who is connecting ideas and articulating solutions through Design.
- The Expert is not particularly effective at articulating customer pain points, but will listen to “The Observer” who presents data-driven cases for change.
- The Expert may not appreciate, or have the patience for, cross-functional teams that require container-building through vulnerability and trust exercises.
- The Expert may feel underappreciated by dynamic leaders who place value on extroversion and creativity.
- The Expert stays well-connected to the external environment, and is often relied upon by “The Salesman” for validation when negotiating for resources for innovation efforts.
- The Expert values deep professional development so she can move faster, while producing higher quality results.
With this picture, it becomes clearer that energy may be wasted when trying to integrate The Expert into innovation teams, but that it is worth fighting to have The Expert in the room when solving problems, prototyping, designing, and building.
Negotiating for The Expert’s Time
As previously stated, The Expert’s value to an organisation extends well beyond innovation. It is The Expert who is depended upon to “keep the lights on” in the organisation’s core activities. Consider a financial services company whose systems must be kept online 100% of the time, for whom data security and privacy are of utmost importance, and whose business model relies upon low error rates and operational scalability.
It is necessary that this company’s information technology experts, privacy lawyers, quality control specialists, and technical architects spend their time meeting these demands.
Particularly for an organization with a mature business model or well-established product offerings, the energy of these specialists is spent creating an environment where sustainable growth – not innovation – is the norm. In fact, to protect their interests, they may be effectively incentivised to snuff out innovation and disruption. Rewarded for quality and reliability, these functions have everything to gain by saying “No” to innovations which may present uncomfortable levels of risk.
So, how can innovators enlist The Expert to improve the odds of success of innovation? First of all, there is nothing preventing innovation generalists from developing a sufficient level of expertise in technical domains, thereby reducing the demands on experts outside the innovation teams. When I was Chief Innovation Officer of an insurance company, we made a concerted effort to increase the digital competency of innovation teams. They were encouraged to learn to wireframe, to learn UX design, and to understand the target architecture of our solutions. Secondly, there is a strong case to be made for hiring experts into innovation-focused roles. I’ve witnessed database administrators, solutions architects, and data scientists with PhD’s in statistics all thrive in innovation roles.
If those strategies are not feasible or do not supply sufficient expertise, substantial energy must be spent selling the case for innovation into the organization in order to obtain expert resources. This case must be presented well beyond the CEO and Management Teams. All stakeholders must be aligned to the role innovation must play in the organisation’s strategy, and conversely, they must intimately understand the risk to the organisation of not executing on the innovation strategy. It is The Salesman archetype who will build and present that case. It is also The Salesman archetype who will best relate to, and most rely upon, The Expert to validate his claims; for it is through the collective intelligence of The Experts that one can gain the richest perspective of the complex environment in which the organisation operates.
Optimizing The Expert’s Involvement in Innovation
In the last few years, there have been a handful of experts who, in close succession, claimed humans could never live on Mars. Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as other well-credentialed scientists were all quoted in news stories in recent months listing reasons why Mars is uninhabitable. Following these stories, Elon Musk, the Founder of SpaceX, was quick to respond. Instead of listing reasons why humans could never live on Mars, Musk answered the more powerful question of, “What would it take to live on Mars?”
The lesson here is that, once enlisted in the innovation efforts, it is not enough to trust that The Expert will be a high-functioning, creative innovator out of the gates. They may be hard-wired to act conservatively. It will often require well-articulated challenges and attentive coaching to unlock the innovative potential hidden within The Expert.
Don’t underestimate the importance of revisiting the broad case for innovation frequently, and for utilising storyboards and similar tools to convey customer pain points to The Expert. Consider why a Hackathon is an effective tool for empowering technical experts to innovate: Hackathons are executed with respect to a succinct challenge that the participants can readily relate to.
Finally, to prevent viable ideas from being compromised through the prototyping, build, and commercialization stages, it is important to guide The Expert through innovation stages with tried and tested coaching techniques. Practice empathy to understand her concerns and support her through conflict. And, as in the case of Mars habitation, asking powerful questions can mean the difference between having The Expert tell you why something will not work versus having them help answer how it could work.