When many experts are too many

slide1In my earlier posts (here and here), I argued that when facing a complex technical or business problem the majority of organizations have a natural inclination to begin the problem-solving process with engaging experts, either internal (employees) or external (consultants).

This approach isn’t without peril, however. If you approached a person, who is an expert in Method A, don’t expect her to tell you that using Method B, and not A, might be a better option to deal with your problem. And if you approached an expert in Method B, don’t expect to hear that this method won’t work–you’ll get at least some of Method B in your solution. And then, there might exist Methods C, D or E, but you never heard about them and therefore don’t know appropriate experts to approach. In other words, when asking for an expert opinion, you immediately narrow the scope of potential solutions to what your experts know.

Is there any empirical evidence showing that experts can actually hurt group performance? There is. In a Harvard Business Review article, “When Having Too Many Experts on the Board Backfires,” András Tilcsik and Juan Almandoz analyzed the role of the so-called domain experts (people whose primary professional experience is within a specific industry) on the performance of corporate boards. In particular, they wanted to know how the proportion of domain experts affected the board performance.

Tilcsik and Almandoz looked at the financial performance of 1,300 community banks and found that when banks faced increased levels of uncertainty, the higher proportion of domain experts on the board resulted in the higher likelihood of banks’ failure. The major problem with having too many domain experts on the board was “cognitive entrenchment,” the inability of expert-dominated boards to effectively respond to new information or unfamiliar situations.

I see a clear parallel between the above finding and the negative experts can have on the problem-solving process. By definition, problem-solving is a process with increased levels of uncertainty. Having too many domain experts on the problem-solving team could result in a preferential choice of old solutions (“we’ve always done it that way”) over new, untested approaches.

In my previous post, I discussed evidence showing that heterogeneous groups of people (i.e., composed of individuals with diverse professional, personal and social attributes) are more innovative than homogenous groups. I further argued that organizations can start reaping the innovation benefits of diversity in another way: by using crowdsourcing.

Here, I’d like to argue that using crowdsourcing to solve complex problems have clear advantages over relying on the intellectual power of experts. First, crowdsourcing is agnostic on the sources of potential solutions. If you engaged a large and sufficiently diversified crowd, you eliminate the very need to know whom you have to approach. You just announce that you have a problem, and then solutions will come to you.

Second, crowdsourcing is also agnostic on the nature of responses. Unless you specifically indicate that you’re interested in certain approaches only, incoming solutions will be focused on solving your problem, not the way of solving it. That’s why crowdsourcing often results in the delivery of completely unexpected, unorthodox solutions.

No, it’s not my intention to pit experts against “amateurs” when pointing to the virtues of crowdsourcing. In fact, crowdsourcing is impossible without experts. Only experts can identify and properly formulate the problems to solve; only experts can go through incoming external submissions to select those that make sense; only experts can integrate the external information with already available knowledge.

Besides, it’s just wrong to assume that people participating in crowdsourcing campaigns are just “amateurs.” In reality, crowds are composed of experts. They simply are not experts working for your company, or in your industry – or having your immediate area of expertise. Moreover, academic research shows that the likelihood of someone solving a problem increases with the distance between this person’s own field of technical expertise and the problem’s domain.

Sure, crowdsourcing isn’t an intuitive way to solve problems; you have to learn how to use it. And yet, if you’re looking for diversity of solutions, crowdsourcing is your best bet.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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