The Non-Expert Advantage

The world is filled with experts. While many self-proclaimed, there are those that hold knowledge raising them to the status of true genius. 

According to The National Academies Press , true geniuses are those who “have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment”. 

But are experts the be-all and end-all for ideation and innovation? As we’ve commonly seen throughout history, experts are not always the ones discovering the latest technologies and society-progressing inventions. From Elon Musk to Steve Jobs, we’ve seen non-experts dominate the realms of various industries. 

So, what is more valuable, experts or non-experts? 

 

Problem Solving and Innovation

Ideas are ever-changing, they’re fluid and constantly evolving as they combine with other ideas. Constantly revised, ideas change course and often head off in new, unexpected directions. 

What sets experts apart, is their ability to guide these ever-morphing ideas with mental models and creative thinking to structure them into a tangible solution. 

Expert’s limitations, however, are that their ideas are often limited to their domain of genius. Experts know what they know and will focus their ideas on building onto what they already excel at. 

This myopic thinking can be problematic as solutions often require ideas from an array of different domains. Solutions need to be flexible, comprehensive, and created with the bigger picture in mind. 

In fact, a study conducted by Harvard Business School revealed that “innovation thrives when experts make up about 40% of an invention team.” The benefit of non-experts comprising the majority is that groupthink is often avoided, and diverse perspectives are brought to the table. However, experts still play a critical role by ensuring the team stays on track and their ideas are viable. 

 

When Expertise Collides with Serendipity

Almost every inventive thinker dreams of having an “aha” moment. The moment when all their thoughts come together to form a golden idea. Although these moments are few and far between, this serendipity can lead to incredible inventions. 

Serendipity cannot be planned for.  However, anytime an idea strikes you, you’ll never know where it’ll take you. Having the courage to follow these ideas and explore their nuances is not isolated to experts, and anyone can achieve serendipity by simply following their intuition. 

Furthermore, knowledge is never static, and with the “accelerating pace of innovation and the ubiquity of information”, knowledge is evolving and accessible at record speeds. It’s changing so quickly, that expertise often becomes obsolete within a few years. With google searches, non-experts can grasp knowledge that matches and exceeds what experts may know. Combing the most recent information from a variety of industries, non-experts can better position themselves for the elusive “aha” moment. 

 

Problem Solving is About Identifying Constraints

 

Although seemingly abstract, problems have boundaries. Problems come from a need for a new device, service, or way of accomplishing XYZ. Consequently, every problem has a defined scope and intention. As you make your way through a problem, scopes may change which will modify your solution trajectory. 

Non-experts are usually not swayed by changing scopes, as they’re guided by intuition, biases, and “outside of the box” thinking. Experts, however, often struggle to think in new and creative ways. Their deep knowledge in a particular field often encourages them to return to familiar ideas leading to uninventive or mediocre solutions. 

Although this myopic thinking is unintentional, a lifetime of focusing on a certain subject area conditions experts to think in a very specific way. This thinking is essential for finding flaws, critiquing, and offering suggestions yet it can be a constraint when used for inventive thinking. 

Pairing non-experts with experts to solve problems is a great comprise as it brings together diverse perspectives and realms of intelligence. The combination of different world views, aptitudes, and ways of thinking, allows problems to be investigated thoroughly. Constraints will be challenged and prodded and the best solution can be offered. 

Although the age-old term “Jack of all trades, master of none”, is often used with a negative connotation, non-experts with knowledge in different realms are valuable. Although, it should never be a question of whether experts are better than non-experts, leveraging varying degrees of expertise can lead to better solutions, more creative thinking, and world-changing inventions. 

 

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