I sat in on a lecture at a prestigious enclave recently. The guest speaker enthralled the audience with an exciting and informative lecture. As with all good speakers, he left the audience wanting by giving them a question to ponder. One by one the members of the audience – all certified experts in the subject matter – rose to offer commentary and ideas. More of an outsider, and certainly without the credentials of all others, I mulled over my own thoughts. A mortal fear the esteemed scholars would laugh me out of the room should I ask a stupid question kept me at bay. Here’s what I did instead.
Set aside your first thought (i.e., “there are no ‘stupid’ questions” – we’ll get to this later) and instead focus on the opportunity provided by foregoing my own ego and simply listening to these intellectual chieftains. In my sedentary yet attentive state, a profound idea stuck me. It exposes a problem that represents the biggest sin every policy maker commits. Whether in Washington or on Wall Street, or in the Board Room or the Class Room, this one perversion tempts authority with the allure of simplicity.
Got a problem? Assemble a panel of experts to solve it. Have them brainstorm with reckless abandon then weed out the lesser ideas and expand on those solutions around which a consensus has been built.
Works every time.
Why do mice and men regular sputter despite their best laid plans?
Silently listening to these really smart folks gave me the insightful answer to this question: When you want to solve a problem, never resort to a panel of experts. Here are three reasons why:
1) Experts tend to be really well-educated, especially when it comes to their specialty. There’s the rub. Once you enter the peer-reviewed realm, fun things like group-think can happen. Those truly capable of thinking outside the box tend to flunk out of the intro courses. Specialization therefore often narrows the boundaries of discussion. A panel of experts, then, merely yields a list of contemporary solutions. Though often elegant – at least by their own definition – they usually result in an intellectually banal offering. Ergo, we spend a lot of money, people write a lot of thesis papers, careers are made, but the problem remains.
2) Experts tend to be really well-educated, especially when it comes to general academic philosophies. At first blush, this might solve the problem caused by our first reason. After all, if you want to find an innovative solution in artificial intelligence, you bring engineers, programmers, psychologist and sociologists together and, violà! you’ve got Commander Data. Not quite. Plainly piling together people from different professional specialties does not remove the element of group-think, it just translates it to a different realm. Think of these examples: If you bring a group of professors from different fields together, you still get a “professorial” point of view. If you bring a group of students from different fields together, you still get a “student” point of view. Now, if you bring a group of students and professors together, you’ll get a more comprehensive answer. (Imagine how much broader the answer becomes when you add those of the business brood!)
3) Experts tend to be really well-educated, which means they might clam up (or worse) when the discussion turns to areas they are less familiar with. If experts only swim in the comfortable shallow (for them, not for us normal folk) end, they might either: a) be reluctant to venture to the deep end; or (worse) b) not realize they’re venturing into the deep end. In the first case, they don’t add anything to the discussion (this is where we get back to the “stupid question” issue). In the second case, they fail to realize they not only aren’t adding value, but they’re actually detracting from the conversation.
What’s the answer? Well, each situation might present a different resolution. In general, it would seem creating a diverse panel presents an obvious response. But don’t make the mistake of superficial diversity. Mix academics with practitioners. Mixing young and old, workers and owners, rich and poor might appear the road to take, but young and old people might think alike about family issues, workers and owners might favor certain industries, and rich and poor may have similar cultural desires.
So, here’s what happened at the end of the Q&A in the lecture I went to. I shyly approached the speaker and asked my “stupid” question. He snapped back as though hit by a sledge hammer and exclaimed, “Wow. That’s a really cool idea. I don’t think anyone’s ever thought of that before.”