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Strategically Spot & Work with Experts to Make Your Life and Career Better

I read the “Source of Power” on how people make decisions last week; it has been recommended in various guru books on product management and UX design. I finally get on to it, not so dramatic as other readers have credited it for “a book that blows you mind”, it does enlighten my thoughts by presenting two decision making models and how experienced professionals utilize different techniques to solve problems.

Gary Kelin’s book is at least fascinating with the amount of stories/interviews it has. To a reader, it help me creates trust, put the models into context, and test the model through them. 

The two models Gary Kelin presented are “Recognition-Primed Decision Model” (or singular strategy) and “Classic Decision Model” (or comparison evaluation). 

Recognition-Primed Decision Model (RPD) is a model of how people make quick, effective decision when faced with complex situation. The model identified a reasonable reaction as the first one that is immediately considered. RPD model is often adopted in emergency services such as fire fighters search and rescue unites etc. But it can also be generalized to refer to any situations where there is time pressure and loads of information (e.g. call centre; construction; air traffic control; software development etc).  

Experience plays a major part in the RPD model as experienced person is more sophisticated in pattern matching and mental simulation, two abilities that are critical to the use of RPD model. An experienced person can 
  • Spot the novice that others don’t see
  • Anomalies that violates expectation
  • Big picture
  • The way things work
  • Opportunities & improvements
  • Events that either already happened or are going to happen
  • Differences that are too small for novices to detect
  • Their own limitation

The book went on to tell the techniques an expert utilize to help with their decision making: mental simulation. Storytelling, spotting leverage points etc. However, I would rather it had answered me some other questions:

How to effectively identify a person’s expertise area so they can use them for good

Leading people who knows more than you do is not a new topic. Wanda Wallace and David Creelman wrote a very good article on how a leader manage the relationship with his/her experienced staff. 

But we do not just need experts in the work environment, actually, we are leveraging on expertise in all situations: when we make a investment decision; choose which school to send our children to; or even book a restaurant for a romantic dinner. 

However, there is little discussion about how an in-experienced person (as we are in many areas in life) can verify and understand the exact expertise of another person, an end-to-end model to strategically identify, verify and leverage on expertise to make our life and career better,  

Here I want to share 3 approaches I use to understand what I can or cannot leverage with a person’s expertise:

Talk What Tasks They Completed, What Problem They Solved: take business analyst for example, a 10 years experienced business analyst in the banking industry does not mean he understands how dynamic currency conversion works. While s/he may have a good background knowledge, the details can still be missing. 

Ask them to tell you the stories and pay attention to the consistency of the flow; most of the time you will be able to spot some common patterns and you can drill down in some cases as well. What you are trying to get is the inconsistencies between the different stories and explanations.

Ask What People they had on the Team and Their Expertise: there are very few tasks that can be completed by one person alone and even less likely this person can be expert in all areas; ask what are the people they leverage on and on what kind of tasks, then the positive will naturally be the areas this person is weak in. 

Of course, even their weakest point can be stronger than mine on the same skill. And as a leader, you may decide to put this person on such task anyway, what I suggest you do is for getting your expectation on the person right and be prepared for alternatives in case it does not work out.

Leverage on Others’ Opinions: when the risk is too much at stake and you are really not sure if this person is the right person, it is time for a 3rd opinion. You can find 3rd opinion in many ways, see this person’s reputation in the industry association, ask the person who have worked with him/her before, read the content s/he produced. 

What are the situation the experts will fail short and make mistakes

You will get a sense of when the expert will under perform easily by understanding what was the context this person had worked in before and compare the differences between what that was before and what is the one you will be utilizing the expert in. So for example, I have a very talented web designer in the team specializing on e-commerce consumer facing website design, but he has very little clue when it comes to mobile UI design.

Again, I am not saying there are no transferrable skills in peripheral areas. What I am trying to say is that you need to understand if the expert will need to go through a learning curve or s/he has already passed the learning curve. You may consider to hove the experts work in a mixed team to help them pick up the knowledge quickly. 

How to create value with your design for experienced professionals

As a product manager, I sometime found myself in the situation in which I have little knowledge on the tasks and situations my stakeholders are in. For example, I was asked to design a call centre agent solution for a large-scale call centre (2,500 pax). I had no idea how the call centre works.

To make sure my design creates value for the organization, I conducted site visits and interviewed selected individuals from different levels of the organization (agents; supervisors; management etc) to find three things:
  • Codify the expertise by understanding the agents backgrounds and company clients
  • Identify the indicators for the expertise area
  • Understand what information they need to make decision and to identify anomalies

The call centre works for different clients from 3 industries: online retail; airline and commercial banking. Agents average 3 years of experience which the more experienced ones in the commercial banking area. From this understanding, I also understand that the airlines they serve are mostly regional airlines that have short and medium routes among the South East Asia countries and for the past years their clients had suffered from severe delays.

Among the information I got, I identified that the agents that have served theses airline client (the indicator) would not only have the general industry expertise but also skills on dealing with angry customers and clam them down when they have very few means to improve the customers’ situation (expertise).

Agents told me it will be great if they can see the flight information of the customers when they call in without having to ask so they can have a guess on what this customers’ inquiry will be able and what can be the possible solution from the start. 

Experience is, in fact, a time-bound, double-edged sword. It is put to the expert themselves as well as the people who rely on the experts together to ensure that it is used to its advantage. Now that we understand how experts make decisions,  one area we should excel on is the ability to vet the experts out there, As you master the skills to vet and leverage on them, you are actually masting the most fundamental skills: people management. 

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