Since most of us are experts in only a few areas, it would seem that one of those areas ought to be managing other experts. Here are three steps to get you started.
Step 1. Learn to respect expertise. We expect others to respect our own expertise, but frequently we don’t seem to respect the expertise of others. You have probably heard the story about the company that is in a crises because some critical piece of equipment is not working, so they call the expert. (I have heard this story told about everything from computers to steam engines.)
The expert arrives and puts an ear to the faulty equipment. She listens at various locations until she smiles and nods. Then the expert pulls out a little hammer and listens some more and finally takes her hammer and carefully taps three times in a particular location and suddenly the equipment purrs into action and is fixed. The company executives are thrilled until the expert presents a bill for $1000. “But all you did was tap the equipment with a little hammer,” they say. “Ah,” says the expert, “that’s $1 for the hammer tapping and $999 for knowing where to tap.”
Step 2. Don’t confuse the tools with the expertise to use them. All too often we convince ourselves that if we just had the expert’s technology (the little hammer equivalent), we could be just as expert. As an avid do-it-yourselfer, I keep re-learning this lesson on a regular basis. Although having the right tool is often critical to a project (and believe me, I have justified the purchase of many new specialized tools with this rationale), I have learned if often takes a lot more practice to use an expert tool effectively than the YouTube video would have had me believe.
So go ahead and try using the expert’s tool yourself if you have a lot of time and patience, maybe you will discover why it’s worth paying an expert to do certain things. You may also learn to be skeptical of people presenting themselves as experts who try to sell you primarily on the superiority of their technology. An expert tool in the hands of a fool can be dangerous indeed.
Step 3. Ask what you can do to help. When I call in an expert, I usually start by saying something like: “I understand your time is valuable and I don’t want to waste it. Are there obvious things I should check first to solve this problem that don’t require your expertise?”
This approach has several benefits. It sends a clear message that I respect the expert. I often learn something about the problem that helps me understand what I am actually asking the expert to do. Sometimes I learn that the problem is a simple mistake on my part which doesn’t require the expert.
This approach is also a great litmus test for finding the best experts because the best experts are happy to save both of you the hassle of an expert visit if their expertise is not really needed. They also value the advance diagnostic information they get from having you try a few things first if it turns out their visit is still required.
Of course, sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to make sure the expert has room to work and other “would-be” experts stay out of the way.
Like any area of expertise, managing experts takes practice. You probably won’t get it in “ten easy lessons.” These three steps will get you started. If you need further motivation, this short satirical video a friend sent me makes the point with panache.