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I may be a bit odd. It is actually quite likely. But one thing that has always seemed strange to me is our level of deference to “experts.” I understand that experts become known as such for a reason and I appreciate the value of advanced educations, years of experience and unique insight. While certainly valuable, I believe that the significance of expertise is greatly over-rated. Experts still make mistakes…everyday. Experts pick the wrong stocks, predict the wrong weather and make the wrong business decisions...consistently.

In addition to stamping the guidance of experts as GOSPEL!, we sometimes appreciate our own expertise a little too much. I am a fan of Peter Senge and in Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, a book he co-wrote with several other folks, he tells the story of several years ago when he was working with some senior executives from the auto industry who were really struggling to compete with the Japanese auto industry. One of the executives he was working with decided to take a “field trip” to Japan to meet with some industry leaders and tour some facilities in the hope of discovering some of the things that Japanese auto-makers were doing that was giving them the edge.

Senge visited with the executive when he returned from his trip and was a bit surprised to realize that his client was sorely disappointed and basically felt that the trip had been a waste of time. Confused, Senge inquired as to why it had been of no value and the executive went on to explain how he had been shown mock auto plants on his visit. Peter Senge was now ever more confused as he could not wrap his head around the idea of mock auto plants and he asked his client how he came to determine that they were not real facilities. This industry expert went on to explain that one thing that all auto plants have is a massive inventory of parts, and the plants he saw had almost no parts on hand.

This man was not stupid. He was very intelligent and he had valuable years of experience. There were relatively few people on the planet with a greater understanding of the profitable manufacture of automobiles. Yet he could not grasp what was right before him. The Japanese automobile industry had implemented just in time inventory, which, among other things had eliminated the need for massive inventories of parts, which the U.S. automobile industry and other industries would go on to implement, but for this expert it was easier to believe that he was seeing fake plants rather than something radically new...something different than what his education and experience had taught him about auto plants.

As the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
-John Wheeler

Expertise and the credence we give to our title, our degree, the heft of our business card or the size of our office can all get in the way of seeing what the world has to teach us…get in the way of what we still have to learn about this person in front of us applying for work, get in the way of what we still have to learn about our co-workers, our clients and the products and services we work with. Our expertise and experience can be of great value, but we have to make an effort to still be a beginner as well.

Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese Zen master who came to America in 1959 and helped to build one of the first American Zen centers in San Francisco. Suzuki spoke a great deal about having a “beginners mind,” in fact one of the books of his talks is called Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. One of my favorite sayings from Suzuki is this; "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." He talked about how trying to teach something to an expert is much like pouring water into a glass that is already full.

We do not see things as they are…we see things as we are.
-Anais Nin

Appreciate your education and experience, but do not be a full glass. Be open to seeing what is in front of you. Be open to learning. Sometimes it is what confuses us or even offends us that has great not be quick to write off the "mock auto plant", but rather continue to explore and inquire.

* Look for and challenge the assumptions that you make about people, groups of people and situations.
* Talk less and listen more.
* Ask more questions…open-ended questions.
* Come to view certainty as a red flag.
* Seek out people with different perspectives, experience, culture, beliefs.
* Practice gratitude and humility.

What would you add to this list?

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