Expert opinion has built up a long rap sheet of error, ranging from amusing misdemeanors to flagrant acts of ignorance. I’ve collected a long list of expert error, which is fun but also sad to review. Here are just of few of the most glaring errors from people who have risen to the level of expert. As you read them, consider how expert biases may affect you at work.
The talking motion picture will not supplant the regular silent motion picture. There is such a tremendous investment to pantomime pictures that it would be absurd to disturb it.
—Thomas Edison, 1913
Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.
—William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, English scientist, 1899
640K ought to be enough for anybody.
There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.
—Albert Einstein, 1932
This case is a loser.
How is it that each of these brilliant men, all of them, failed to see the potential right in front of them? How can you as a leader avoid such blatant blunders?
Creativity “expert” Michael Michalko blames expert error on the paradox of expertise. In his blog post An Expert is a Person Who Knows More but Sees Less, he offers this illustration.
You can see how the 17 images morph gradually from a man’s face to a seated woman. But when test subjects were shown the images one at a time, starting from the top left, they identified the image as a man long into the series. As you might expect, the opposite occurred when people were shown the images from the bottom right.
Michalko concludes, “Once an observer has formed an image–that is, once he or she has developed an expectation concerning the subject being observed–this influences future perceptions of the subject.” Witnesses in criminal investigations who identify mistakenly identify an innocent person in a lineup or series of images will cling to their error even when the guilty person is presented to them.
Experts and leaders carry a heavy burden of expectation. They learn and hold what they’ve learned as fact. Most of the time learning and being an expert is valuable, but sometime cognitive bias create a deficiency or limitation in their thinking.
Fortunately the experts quoted above simply opened their mouths too soon. Most of them eventually saw through their mistaken ideas and moved forward. Leaders have do the same. And they will do even better if they avoid trap of expert thinking in the first place.
As a leader, apply four three simple techniques:
When it comes to your career and personal life, learn from the mistakes rather than the pronouncements of experts.
We don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.
—Hewlett Packard executive to Steve Jobs
It will be years—not in my time—before a woman will become prime minister.
—Margaret Thatcher, 1974
I don’t need bodyguards.
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