I am always intrigued by people who portray themselves as experts. We are all keenly aware of the carnage wrought on the financial markets by the so-called experts. Perhaps if someone had more aggressively questioned their assumptions, beliefs and actions (and presumably fat commissions), our world-wide financial well-being wouldn’t be as exposed today.

Dear Colleagues

‘Consultants and Experts borrow your watch to tell you the time’ ...as the well worn expression goes.

I am always intrigued by people who portray themselves as experts. We are all keenly aware of the carnage wrought on the financial markets by the so-called experts. Perhaps if someone had more aggressively questioned their assumptions, beliefs and actions (and presumably fat commissions), our world-wide financial well-being wouldn’t be as exposed today.

Degrees of Belief
Steven Vick in his well researched book ’Degrees of Belief’ writes about the key qualities of an engineering expert being quick response; ability to pose questions, self awareness and self knowledge, deeper problem visualization, innovation in problem representation, observation and memory skills, writing skills/preparation, hard work and persistence and initiative.

Certainly a long and challenging list. I especially like the ability to pose questions. I would add in the qualities of being able to listen carefully to others and self-learning.

Question Assumptions All the Time
I have however found the hard way over many years is that you have to question everyone’s knowledge or assumptions. Whether it is an expert or not. You will be absolutely horrified at the actual level of real knowledge of your particular problem demonstrated by a lawyer/doctor/real estate agent/engineer/IT specialist or even social worker. In many cases abysmal. And often with no knowledge of your specific application.

So never trust the expert’s opinion if you have the faintest of doubts. As Robert De Niro pointed out: ‘When there is any doubt, there is no doubt’. I know you would be horrified when I state that a brain surgeon should be questioned about a particular operation. But this is the truth. How often have you found that an expert is not up to date with a particular technique or piece of breaking research ? Or has misunderstood it.

Do NOT trust anyone’s Professional Opinion
So Rule No. 1 is do not trust anyone’s “professional opinion”. A metallurgist showed me his  technique for assuring himself of a good outcome many years ago when he questioned my design assumptions for the industrial automation system for a large iron ore processing plant. He kept posing the (very irritating after a while !) question: “why” to every statement I made. And I had to then explain in simple English why I had adopted a particular course of action.

You will never be disappointed when you keep questioning your expert (but often disappointed with the person’s actual grasp of the situation). Don’t let the expert seek refuge in mumbo jumbo technical language either. I firmly believe if they can’t explain their proposed solution to a problem in simple understandable English they probably don’t understand it either.

And there is no reason why you can’t be an expert in a particular problem and discuss the issue at an equal level with your hired expert. I always believe that engineering professionals are particularly well suited to working with experts in varied environments as we thrive on being strongly quantitative, objective and questioning from an early age. As we all know, the physical world is particularly unforgiving with subjective solutions to problems.

A true expert will welcome your knowledge and love to talk to you as an equal.

Suggestions on Working with Experts
My suggestions when working with an expert are:

  • List and carefully research your queries before meeting your expert so you are at the same level in terms of know-how
  • Research the issues using the web and other colleagues
  • Particularly investigate new-breaking techniques and opinions of others and use “lateral thinking”
  • Question all assumptions and solutions proposed by him/her – do not rely on the expert being omnipotent
  • Always deal with the expert as an equal – never kow-tow to them or treat them as anything more valued than you
  • Apply your unique solution of the situation to the solution proposed by the expert. Most of the time you have a greater understanding of the particular application and how it integrates into your overall business
  • Keep asking the “why” all the time until you get a satisfactory answer
  • When in doubt; send the expert away to re-investigate and resubmit a solution (or gracefully disentangle yourself as you may have found that you actually know far more)
  • Look for common sense solutions.

I like the famed physicist, Neil Bohr’s take on an expert:  "An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes, which can be made, in a very narrow field."

Yours in engineering learning

Steve

Mackay’s Musings – 19th July’16 #609
780, 293 readers – www.idc-online.com/blogs/stevemackay