The limitation of experts

Whenever we spend too much time looking for an expert. When we have an expectation that someone out there knows the subject so deeply that they will be able to advise us to make the right decision. When this happens, we are in danger of making a poor decision. 

The number of experts in the world has increased in proportion with our ability to communicate easily. Some ‘experts’ even offer courses on how to be experts. Others put themselves out as guides to the world of experts, the meta experts who help you navigate the experts. All in all we are awash with experts on any topic we can imagine.

Perhaps the growth of experts is in line with the amount of information available to us. The world appears more complex with data on just about every topic imaginable starting at wikipedia and spreading through portals, blogs, Linkedin and Twitter. Decisions appear a lot harder with so many choices. It is natural to want to find guides to help us navigate.

Unfortunately the expert guides do not have a good track record of getting their decisions right. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip Tetlock interviewed 284 experts  who are paid for offering advice about political and economic trends. He gathered more than 80,000 predictions over 20 years. The outcome was that these paid experts performed worse when compared to assigning equal probabilities to each of their predictions. This very serious study on the success of experts in politics and economics confirms the numerous instances where monkeys throwing darts beat professional money managers (see Forbes and Toronto’s Globe and Mail for two examples).

Listening to an expert who has spent time studying a particular area is useful. Making a decision based on the decision they would make is not. At the end of the day we are left with ourselves and our decisions. The experts provide context, we have to live with our own decisions. 

All those in favour of delagting decisions shrug your shoulders











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Are famous people good people?

What is it that makes a person a good person?

Are famous public people always good, unless they do something bad. 

Did Oscar Pistorius change who he was overnight?

Is Barack Obama still the same person he was when he became the first black president of the United States? Why has the perception of him changed?

If someone has a fancy title, lots of money, influential friends, fame and success, are they automatically good people?

Logic says no. But many people have taken me aside and told what a good person someone is because they ‘just look like it on TV’.

I have worked with a couple of people who are household names and I am always surprised at how well,  people who have never met them, know them.

Why is it that we want to believe someone is good because they are famous?

And how do we cope when we find out that our idol is in fact a chop?
Are famous people good people?






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It underpins everything

Knowing ourselves is our most overlooked ability.

Today the advice section in our local book store overflows and talk shows have more experts than topics.

Since Stephen Covey gave us the 7 Habits of highly successful people, we have advice lists covering all our possible needs. From spiritual success to power, money and any other topic we can think of, someone has advice for us.

The one area where advice doesn’t count, and all we have is ourselves, is our awareness. Advice means nothing if we don’t know ourselves.

A life filled with advice and little awareness is like a house built on a weak foundation.

Sitting silently within ourselves, our awareness or lack of it, can be our greatest asset or our Achilles heel.

No advice can replace awareness









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There is always baggage

Whether a company or an individual, our past often impacts how we respond today. 

This is why so many small businesses fail to make the leap to medium businesses and medium business struggle to become really big.

Growth demands change. Growth demands letting go of old ways so as to create new. 

Likewise, as people with baggage, we often learn a way to respond to a feeling which works well initially (it may have been in our childhood). Later in life we have the potential for a better response but don’t always take it, as it feels safer to hang onto our original way of doing things. 

The thing with baggage is that it becomes more of a problem when we do not acknowledge it. 

By owning up to baggage we give ourselves the potential to move beyond it. 

Unfortunately, pretending we don’t have baggage is the surest way to allow it to trip us up. 


Emotional baggage is being too scared to let go of an old response to a feeling despite knowing now there is a better way

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When something is complicated we can use a heuristic as a short cut. Heuristics simplify the complicated into something more familiar and on our own terms.

An ‘educated guess’ is a common heuristic. It allows us to reach a conclusion without having to research a problem in depth. Another example of a heuristic is ‘common sense’. We can apply ‘common sense’ to decision making allowing us to find an answer based on our experience and our observation of a particular problem.

There are other ‘unnamed’ heuristics such as when we briefly recount the main points of a story to a friend, when neither of us have the time to go throw the full blow by blow account.

The heuristic is a useful shortcut to explain something without going into all the detail.

It however runs the risk that the short cuts I use may not be the same short cuts you understand. My heuristics are influenced by my bias, as are yours.

News as delivered by newspapers, television and radio is never really news. It’s not what really happened. With a short space of time and space (billboards and banner ads), news is a heuristic for the journalist to communicate what happened. Both their own and their publications’ bias get rolled in with the story.

This is why news should be regarded with some scepticism. The journalists’  heuristic and our own heuristic are unlikely to be the same.

Rather than believe what has been written, we should be figuring out the journalists’ heuristic.

Heauristics are useful as a short cut for a long story but they are not the same as the long story because they include the bias of the writer.

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Innovative disagreement

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

– Rumi


The debate raging about what constitutes a healthy diet can be confusing for those of us in the dangerous position of having only a little bit of knowledge.

Professor Tim Noakes, a top rated scientist who has a lifetime achievement award from the National Research Foundation for his pioneering work in sports science, has in the past year weighed in against the establishment by challenging the so called “balanced diet” or “food pyramid” as is popular in the United States.

At the December 2012 University of Cape Town centenary debate entitled “Cholesterol is not an important risk factor for heart disease and current dietary recommendations do more harm than good”, a lively and sometimes confusing battle of the scientists raged between Dr Jacques E Rossouw and Prof Noakes.

I was struck by the shrugs and sighs and comments passed under people’s breath throughout the debate. Clearly many of the audience were colleagues from the medical fraternity and while it seemed only a few were supportive of Noakes’ views, the overriding feeling coming out of the debate was frustration and exasperation. When the moderator of the debate, Prof Jimmy Volmink, the Dean of the medical school concluded the evening by insinuating that Noakes was essentially a “bullshitter”, I wondered whether there was a more creative way to move beyond bitter and sometime acrimonious disputes of science.

The answer may lie in an approach from Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

One of the most influential scientists in his field, he has had his fair share of conflict with people who disagree with the work he is doing. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow he says, “On a few occasions I have responded to criticisms that I thought were grossly misleading, because a failure to respond can be interpreted as conceding error, but I have never found the hostile exchanges instructive. In search of another way to deal with disagreements, I have engaged in a few “adversarial collaborations,” in which scholars who disagree on the science agree to write a jointly authored paper on their differences, and sometimes conduct research together. In especially tense situations, the research is moderated by an arbiter.”

He goes on to say, “My most satisfying and productive adversarial collaboration was with Gary Klein, the intellectual leader of an association of scholars and practitioners who do not like the kind of work I do. They call themselves students of Naturalistic Decision Making, or NDM, and mostly work in organisations where they often study how experts work.” The NDMers adamantly reject the approach that Kahneman’s takes to the area of intuition accusing him of being too focused on failure and influenced by artificial experiments rather than the NDMers approach of studying actual people.

With the battle lines similarily drawn, adversarial collaboration would seem to me to be a constructive and creative way to move the debate on diet forward.

In the case of Kahneman and Klein above, their joint paper in American Psychologist (Sep 2009) is entitled, “Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree”. Exploring the field of intuition (the type covered by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink) the abstract lays out their approach.

This article reports on an effort to explore the differences between two approaches to intuition and expertise that are often viewed as conflicting: heuristics and biases (HB) and naturalistic decision making (NDM). Starting from the obvious fact that professional intuition is sometimes marvelous and sometimes flawed, the authors attempt to map the boundary conditions that separate true intuitive skill from overconfident and biased impressions. They conclude that evaluating the likely quality of an intuitive judgment requires an assessment of the predictability of the environment in which the judgment is made and of the individual’s opportunity to learn the regularities of that environment. Subjective experience is not a reliable indicator of judgment accuracy.

Could Professor Noakes jointly write a paper on the subject with one of his adversaries. I believe this would offer an opportunity for much learning both by those involved and by the rest of us interested in the debate. It would also confirm my hunch that while there are differences, there are also many areas of agreement.

Disagree and move the debate forward










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Newspaper’s opaque purpose

Newspapers do not care as much about the news as we like to think.

Their core purpose is to sell newspapers rather than writing the best news stories.

Could it be that when a newspaper runs a headline that says,

“Thousands killed in Bangladesh. Pictures”

it is aiming to grab our attention in the same way as we slow down to have a good look while driving past a motor accident?

By reporting about disasters or looming disasters, papers tap into an anxiety which we ease when we buy the paper to find out more.

Either that or we make ourselves feel slightly better by conforming that someone else is worse off than us.

Or the third is selling the ideal, lifestyles of the rich and famous, so we can dream how it might be to be like them.

These emotional triggers complemented with offers such as,

“Hate your boss. Find a new job today”

when the weekly career supplement is published or,

“Win millions in jackpot”

all tap in to the newspaper’s core purpose. Sell more.

Newspapers will argue that they give their readers what they want but if that was the case the industry wouldn’t be declining as per the infographic below. An ever declining pool of newspaper readers is getting older every year and not being replaced by younger readers.

Papers and publishing are filled with conflicts such as balancing editorial vs advertising vs paid for editorial. Tricky areas to navigate as the world becomes more transparent.

That slightly uneasy feeling we get having just completed a newspaper and wondering, “is that it?”, is indicative of the gap between the actual purpose and the espoused purpose of newspapers. This incongruence is what is leading to the decline in the industry.

As we become more connected, we are ever more demanding that when we are the customer our purpose is aligned with that of the people we buy from.

If not, we will quickly uncover a better option and take advantage of it.

The Decline of Newspapers– An infographic by the team at Clickinks


Newspaper headlines are designed to sell newspapers not report the news










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Be prepared to be wrong

Thinking strategically is about being right about the future, right?

Actually not.

Striving to be right is the biggest blind spot of many strategists. Believing that we can correctly see what lies ahead, we tap into a number of our biases. Overconfidence, anchoring, illusion of control and the Texas sharpshooter fallacy all pull us away from the rational view of the future.

There are more biases but the above should be enough to caution us to expect to falter at least some of the time.

Good strategists always consider being wrong and avoid the temptation of believing too much in their strategies. Paradoxically this makes the strategies better.

Building in scenarios helps us to not be wrong. This is different from being right.

And if you are feeling a little infallible then consider that you would be in good company should you get your strategy wrong:

“The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”
– Clifford Stoll, American author, 1995

“I think it will grow but the vast majority of customers in the foreseeable future will continue to prefer a good, old-fashioned printed and bound book.”
– George Jones, CEO of Borders Group, 2008

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
– Thomas J. Watson, Chairman of the Board of IBM, 1943

“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
– Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.”
– Thomas Edison, American inventor, 1889

“How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, 1800s.

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
– Albert Einstein, 1932

Einstein working on the theory of relativity













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A test of your rational thinking

Here is a simple puzzle. Answer it as you are reading without stopping to analyse it. 

A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you followed the instruction you are likely to have come up with the answer of ten cents.

There are no tricks here. This exercise from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow is a classic example of our fast brain at work. It sees the answer immediately and makes it available to us.

Our slow brain on the other hand takes much longer to reach an answer and is suited for more complex topics.

2 x 2 is a fast brain problem and you can reach the answer of 4 with no effort at all.

17 x 24 on the other hand produces no immediate response and requires our slow brain to engage and figure out the answer.

The challenge which we all face is that our slow brain needs to ask the fast brain to engage and if it thinks it has the answer it jumps in.

In the bat and ball example above, the lure of jumping in was just too much because the answer was so obvious.

Unfortunately the obvious answer was also wrong as the correct answer is in fact $1.05, an answer which requires the slow brain.

Our fast brain is responsible, at least part of the time for jumping to quick irrational answers which the slow brain would figure out, if only we gave it a chance.

Strategic thinking is typically a slow brain activity.

Daniel Kahneman's book thinking fast and slow








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