Coming to grips with the technical expert’s handicap

Knowing the answer before others are even aware of the problem, is deemed by technical experts as concrete proof of their elevated technical expertise. Fair enough. Unfortunately from the user’s perspective, answers – seemingly disconnected from the issue at hand – lack credibility and are deemed unconvincing.

Ironically, just as the user had a nonexistent understanding of the original technical problem, the technical expert is oblivious to the problem of credibility disconnect.

From the technical expert’s perspective, they have solved the technical issue and they can now move on to the next challenge. That the user will not learn anything from the expert, will not follow their advice and will not deploy the solution, is not seen by the expert as a problem. They are blind to the people problem they’ve left behind them. If, on rare occasions they are aware of it, their thought process is as follows: Convincing the user I’m right is not my responsibility.

This divide of understanding between technical experts and users is all too common; one need only look to today’s headlines to see examples of its consequences. After Hurricane Katrina, numerous officials remarked that no one could have imagined the levees could break. They make this denial despite reports detailing the consequences, down to the depth of the flood waters intersection by intersection, throughout the drowned city of New Orleans.

When this denial of expert opinion proves to be the worst possible action, the deniers have a ready-made excuse and rationale for ignoring expert advice: How could they possibly know which expert to listen to?

At first glance that does sound convincing. Experts don’t always agree and the user is, by definition, not knowledgeable enough to select the correct answer out of a labyrinth of differing expert opinions.

One can counter that argument with the suggestion that responding to one of the more dire reports might have been the most prudent course of action. Certainly preparing for some adversity is more prudent than sticking our heads in the sand and assuming that the status quo will prevail.

There’s another way to respond to the users’ “too many experts” argument. Rather than use it as an excuse for inaction, we can use it as strong evidence to suggest that experts consistently fail in their appointed duty to solve problems. A problem is solved in two steps: first we find a solution, then we implement it.

As technical experts, folks in IT are very good at the first step of finding a solution. Regardless of the challenge, we can bring technology to bear on it and come up with something that will work. It might be expensive, it might be cutting edge, it might be complicated, but it will work.

When it comes to the second step, it’s not that we fail at it, but that, for the most part, we don’t even accept that it is our responsibility.

The pushback on this notion that the technical expert is responsible, not only for coming up with solutions, but also for their successful implementation, is to be expected. Those who embrace the notion that implementation is part of problem solving will have the almost unique experience of seeing their ideas put into to practice.

There’s no satisfaction in predicting the flooding of New Orleans, and seeing it come to pass from a paddleboat. There’s great satisfaction in predicting a flood and then walking on dry land.

Peter de Jager is a speaker/writer/consultant on issues relating to change management. You can contact him and read more of his work at www.technobility.com

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