on September 17th, 2008

Dear Colleagues

I am always intrigued by people who portray themselves as experts. Today 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.

Steven Vick in his well researched book ’Degrees of Belief’ writes about the key qualities of an engineering expert: The ability to pose questions and respond quickly, self awareness and self knowledge, deeper problem visualisation, innovation in problem representation, observation and memory skills, writing skills/preparation, hard work, persistence and initiative. Certainly a long and challenging list. My favourite is the ability to pose questions. I would add the following qualities: The ability to listen carefully to others and ‘self learning’.

I have found out the hard way, as have you I am sure; that you have to question everyone’s knowledge or claims. The actual level of real knowledge of your particular problem, demonstrated by a so-called expert lawyer/doctor/real estate agent/engineer/IT specialist or even social worker may in many cases be abysmal. Never trust the expert’s opinion – particularly if you have doubts. As Robert De Niro pointed out:
“When there is any doubt, there is no doubt.”
All experts should be questioned – they may not be up to date with a particular technique or breaking research – or lack the clarity of understanding necessary to utilize it – with your particular requirement.

So Rule No. 1: Do not trust anyone’s “professional opinion”.
A metallurgist showed me his technique for assuring himself of a good outcome -many years ago he questioned my design assumptions for an industrial automation system for a large iron ore processing plant. He kept posing the (very irritating) question: “Why” to every statement I made. And I had to 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 that if a proposed solution to a problem cannot be described in simple English then the expert probably lacks the necessary understanding too. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t be an expert in a particular area and discuss issues on an equal level with your hired consulting expert. I 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 – all from an early age. As we all know, the physical world is particularly unforgiving with subjective solutions to problems.

I had a warm, fuzzy feeling when I was dealing with an ophthalmologist for an eye injury I received recently whilst working in the garden. I researched the damage to the eye carefully through using the internet and by talking to the doctor. I saw the welcoming glow and sign of respect when he saw he could discuss the problem with me on an equal footing. And I had more confidence when I walked out of his office with a joint plan of action – designed by both of us.

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

My suggestions when working with an expert are:

• List and carefully research your queries before meeting your expert so that you are not disadvantaged and railroaded
• Research the issues using the web and consider the opinions of others
• Investigate ground-breaking techniques and consider it using “lateral thinking” – have faith in yourself
• Question all assumptions and solutions proposed by him/her – do not rely on the expert being omnipotent
• Do not be daunted by his/her vaunted skill/knowledge (and arrogance that often accompanies it) – deal with the expert as an equal
• 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  “why” 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)

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


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