Leonardo Award

Guided Experience – How to keep crucial expertise in the company

Prof. Dorothy A. Leonard

Professor Leonard, what do you associate with Leonardo da Vinci?

Leonardo da Vinci was a highly creative person and an expert in different fields – for example in arts, science and engineering. Usually you need different people to get different perspectives that spark creativity. Leonardo da Vinci was able to access different perspectives in his own head.

As you said, Leonardo da Vinci was an expert in different fields. This relates to your work on “deep smarts” and expert knowledge. What are deep smarts?

Deep smarts means organizationally critical and experienced-based expertise. This last phrase – “experienced-based” – distinguishes deep smarts from other kinds of expertise. Expertise can also be based on facts and scientific principles. But we are talking about the expertise that exists in someone’s head, after they have pursued some activity for many years. People can have deep smarts on very different topics. You can have a deeply smart chef who is expert at combining particular foods, sauces and spices. But you can also have deeply smart scientists who are very aware of how molecules work. Their knowledge has a large tacit component. Tacit knowledge is unarticulated knowledge that is held in someone’s head. It has not been expressed in text or in any other form.

How do deeply smart people use this knowledge at work?

Pattern recognition and system thinking are typical skills of deeply smart people. They are able to make decisions quickly, because they can recognize patterns, size up a situation and see what is likely to happen next. The doctor who is deeply smart can look at a part of your eye and knows how it interacts with all the other parts of your system of vision. He can anticipate that a problem in this part of your eye will lead to problems with the rest of the visual system. A chef can anticipate that if you put certain kinds of spices in a sauce, it will curdle or be overly spicy or become tasty. So being able to anticipate how a given component interacts with all the other parts of a system – that’s a characteristic skill of deeply smart people.

When do they develop this skill?

We are talking about deep smarts that are relevant to organizations and corporations and therefore are developed mainly through work. But any artist, sculptor or painter develops deep smarts from the first time he or she picks up a pencil, pen or paint brush. Deep smarts develop over time through experience.

Can you describe this process of developing deep smarts a little bit further?

Suppose that you have some experience. You are competent, but want to become a true expert, a guru, someone to whom everyone goes when they have a question. The best way to develop that experience is through what we call guided experience. In other words: You need the expert to help you have the kinds of experience that will develop the tacit knowledge, the pattern recognition, the system thinking. You need to become an active learner and try to understand how the expert behaves, diagnoses and approaches problem solving. The best way to do this is to observe the expert, to practice and solve problems with him. Germany and Austria have a long tradition of apprenticeships. In the United States we have lost that tradition in most businesses and that has lessened the opportunity for inexperienced people to learn from experts.

How many companies practice guided experience?

There are a lot of companies that do support this process. But there are many more who haven’t realized how much expertise they are losing by waiting until the baby boomer expert walks out the door. What does it cost to replace someone with deep smarts who retires or leaves the enterprise? The estimates reach from three times that person’s annual salary to ten or more times that person’s annual salary. And that doesn’t count losses that occur because his or her expertise was not available to help customers – or because projects were delayed or cancelled due to the absence of this person. Because of the recession in the United States many people delayed retiring. So there was a window of opportunity for companies to ask their experts to help mentor and teach. But not all companies took advantage of that window.

What can companies do to prevent this brain-drain?
GE Global Research, for example, has stopped the practice of hiring back retirees. They used to hire people back to do the same job they did before – and paid them the same money for working fewer hours. But GE Global Research realized that this that was not a good way to capture the knowledge these individuals had. Instead GE began holding workshops that we designed to capture the knowledge of people who are going to retire. They have set up a whole program of knowledge transfer.
Other companies have put in place recognition and/or requirements for people to transfer their expertise. . We know corporations that include in the performance reviews of experts whether or not they have successfully mentored someone more junior. And if they have not, they are not eligible for promotion to the next rank.

Experts are very important for companies. But they may also be wrong sometimes. What are the blind spots and limitations of expertise?

Experts are human and subject to the same biases that all of us are – for example confirmation bias, which means that we are pleased when we see evidence that confirms what we already thought. Experts are also liable to try to apply a known solution inappropriately to a different situation or problem. The pattern recognition that I mentioned helps them make quick decisions, but it can also lead them astray, if they see a pattern and don’t question the underlying assumptions, but immediately apply a familiar solution. In this case they are not open to innovation. That’s one reason that putting experts with beginners in teams is an excellent idea. Experts benefit from people who ask questions and have this kind of “beginners mind”. Beginners can challenge experts, which is healthy for them and for the organization.

This brings us to one of your other fields of interest: group creativity. How can companies stimulate creativity in teams?

One of the ways is what we have just been talking about: to compose teams very deliberately for some degree of what is called “creative abrasion” or “productive friction”. I am not talking about personal, but intellectual disagreement. We know that innovation and creativity are sparkled by the intersection of different perspectives. The second factor is the team process that enables these different perspectives to be expressed. If a leader does not encourage or make room for them, he or she may lose a great deal of creativity from the team. If the leader expresses his opinion first in a meeting, in most organizations the others will simply follow. In truly creative organizations they won’t, of course.
What does your work on deep smarts and group creativity mean for corporate learning? Do companies have to rethink their training and development concepts?
The implication of our research on deep smarts is that everyone needs to remember that while classroom instruction is very useful as a basis, we actually develop skills, know-how, and capability through experience. Therefore our plans for the development of people need to have an element of guided experience in order to deepen expertise. Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t know how to do that. Experts can be trained to guide experience. But the first step is to motivate them and the second step is to teach them how understand how to guide experience. And that’s not necessarily in the menu of learning opportunities in corporations. In some places it is, in many places it is not.

Interview: Alexandra Pfirrmann und Bettina Geuenich