Innovation and Experts

Lots of people want to promote Innovation these days. Why not get in a top expert to help? Answer: if you want to innovate, ignore the experts! With rare exceptions, "experts" are the enemy of innovation, and supporters of the status quo.

Experts

If you're doing something new and want to do it right, it's natural to seek the help of someone who's been there and done that. If you want to do the thing in an innovative way, that's all the more reason to seek expert help; the innovation you need may already be out there, and who's more likely to know it than an expert?

Turning to experts is what we do. At a basic level, that's why we have schools, degrees and certification programs. A person with an MBA is supposed to be much more of an expert about business than the average Jane or Joe. But an MBA is just an entry-level expert. What many people want is an Expert, or even better, an EXPERT!!

An expert is someone who knows loads and loads about a certain portion of common knowledge. They can tell you what are the common practices in a given area, what they would characterize as "best practices." There may be some weird, fringe people out there working at you've-never-heard-of-it places who do things differently and make wild claims about what they do. But can you take the risk of going out on a limb and failing, when all the top organizations do X? Of course not.

Experts are herd dogs. They get everyone to make roughly the same choices that everyone else makes, and go in roughly the same direction.

Think about the process of selecting an expert. Don't you want someone who is generally acknowledged to be an expert? Who advises major organizations to do what the "leading" other major organizations do?

Think about being successful as an expert. The vast majority of the potential fees come from major organizations. None of whom want to be told they're doing things all wrong. Most of whom would like validation, and maybe some minor tweaks. That's where the client list and fees come from.

Experts want to be recognized, hired and paid by rich, mainstream organizations. Organizations want experts to help guide them to not stray too far from the pack.

In other words, the vast majority of large organizations are like sheep traveling in a herd. If they wander off from the herd, they may get lost or hurt! Experts are like sheep dogs who bark and nip at the sheep who wander off or lag behind.

If you want to innovate, the last thing you should want is a typical "expert."

An expert on experts

To get the real story on experts, let's turn to the person who is, above all others, THE expert on experts. Richard Feynman boils the subject down to terms anyone can understand:

An "expert" is someone whose knowledge we are supposed to accept based on the authority of the expert. It's not our place to question it. The whole reason to get an expert is that we assume we can't possibly figure out what to do ourselves!

A scientist reacts to assertions by the expert saying things like "why?" "How do you know that?" "Where are the experiments that prove that what you are saying is true?" Scientists don't take things on authority. Feynman is saying that experts are nothing more than people who say, with deep voices and calm authority, "This is the truth, my child." In any situation in which you are supposed to take things on faith, the natural reaction of the scientist is: you're definitely ignorant, and probably wrong. Why do you need the take-it-on-faith stuff if you can prove it? Science replaces faith in people (i.e. experts) with reliance on facts, proof, numbers and math.

Experts and flight

One of the best examples of innovation and the expert effect is the history of manned flight.

One of the most famous experts of his day was Samuel Pierpont Langley:

He built and launched a couple unmanned planes that flew thousands of feet. He was famous. He got major funding from the government, and everyone expected him to succeed. He was the ultimate expert in aviation.

There was just one problem. His planes all crashed. Here's one that "flew" right into the Potomac River in 1903:

Nonetheless, belief in the expertness of the wonderful expert Langley remained so great, in spite of his complete and utter failure to even come close to controlled manned flight, that his reputation remained high and all sorts of aviation-related things are named in his honor, from medals to airports.

We all know who actually figured out how to make a flying machine: the Wright Brothers.

These guys built bicycles in Dayton, Ohio! No fame. No government money. In no way were they experts. But: they were scientists! In the true sense of the word -- in Feynman's sense. Here's a bit of what they did:

In other words, they figured out what the real problems were, did designs, built prototypes, ran tests, and ... innovated!!!  Here is one of their flights in 1904:

The rest of the story tells us a huge amount about innovation and experts. Briefly, no one believed them! They went for years trying to get government interest. Years later they were celebrated as heroes, but at the time, even the local government and press ignored them. Finally their accomplishments were accepted in 1909, when they flew up and down the Hudson River for half an hour in front of an estimated one million people, circling the Statue of Liberty.

No one could believe that these non-expert nobodies could have solved a problem that stumped the nationally recognized, accepted experts.

Conclusion

If you want to know what to do, you have two basic paths.

One is to hire an expert to tell you basically what everyone else is doing. It's a good way to be "safe," and avoid innovation of any kind. But nothing stops you from crowing about how innovative you are, at least compared to the sheep staring at your back legs!

The other way is to be a scientist and figure out what the real problems are and how to solve them. Then do it. It's what innovators do.

You pick. I know what my choice is.