Expert culture is bad for you


Expert culture is bad for you. Not experts themselves, though I prefer not to use the word at all, but a culture that elevates them unduly. I don't like the word because it is usually used to mean something like master, chief, authority, or worst of all, judge. 

What's wrong with expert culture? Lots:

  • It disenfranchises everyone else. Non-experts think there are some opinions they are not entitled to. In a highly creative, subjective discipline like ours, this is A Bad Thing.
  • This forces them to wait around till the expert can tell them what to do. Which slows everything down. If they have to wait too long, or can't get the expert's attention, or the expert can't or won't get involved, the opportunity, whatever it was, may disappear. 
  • Meanwhile, experts are burdened with impossibly high expectations — of always being right or at least deeply insightful. This makes them cautious. So if they're uncertain or uncomfortable, they hang back because there's no upside to being wrong in the expert culture.
  • Expert culture encourages knowledge hoarding, because it explicitly connects personal knowledge with glory, and downplays what the rest of the organization knows. The ignorance of the masses highlights the expert's prestige.
  • Experts, frustrated with having to tell people what to do all the time, write best practice documents and other edicts, which try to make tricky workflows idiot-proof. But idiot-proof means idiot-friendly — who did you hire?

How to fix it


Better is a culture of expertise. The basic premise is that expertise is everywhere in your organization. You do not, and can not, know where it is. Indeed, its whereabouts will often surprise you. Turns out you hired awesome people after all — and they know stuff. Yay!

In the culture of expertise, what are these people we often call experts? They are still highly experienced people, with unusually broad or deep careers, with profound intelligence or intuition. But now they are free to apply their insight and judgment in more creative and more daring ways — even to things they aren't considered experts in. And their role in this new culture shifts slightly: it becomes the seeking, assessing, parsing, synthesizing, and spreading of expertise in the organization — wherever it is. They become curators, mentors, and champions of excellence. And they will revel in it.

The best experts do this already. How many do you know? Will you step up?

You own your brain

I met someone last week who said her employer — a large integrated oil & gas company — 'owned her'. She said she'd signed an employment agreement that unequivocally spelt this out. This person was certainly a professional on paper, with a graduate degree and plenty of experience. But the company had, perhaps unwittingly, robbed her of her professional independence and self-determination. What a thing to lose.

Agreements like this erode our profession. Do not sign agreements like this. 

The idea that a corporation can own a person is obviously ludicrous — I'm certain she didn't mean it literally. But I think lots of people feel confined by their employment. For some reason, it's acceptable to gossip and whisper over coffee, but talking in any public way about our work is uncomfortable for some people. This needs to change.

Your employer owns your products. They pay you for concerted effort on things they need, and to have their socks knocked off occasionally. But they don't own your creativity, judgment, insight, and ideas — the things that make you a professional. They own their data, and their tools, and their processes, but they don't own the people or the intellects that created them. And they can't — or shouldn't be able to — stop you from going out into the world and being an active, engaged professional, free to exerise and discuss our science with whomever you like.

If you're asked to sign something saying you can't talk at meetings, write about your work, or contribute to open projects like SEGwiki — stop.

These contracts only exist because people sign them. Just say, 'No. I am a professional. I own my brain.'

Stop waiting for permission to knock someone's socks off

When I had a normal job, this was the time of year when we set our goals for the coming months. Actually, we sometimes didn't do it till March. Then we'd have the end-of-year review in October... Anyway, when I thought of this, it made me think about my own goals for the year, for Agile, and my career (if you can call it that). Here's my list:

1. Knock someone's socks off.

That's it. That's my goal. I know it's completely stupid. It's not SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, or timely. I don't believe in SMART. For a start, it's obviously a backronym. That's why there's attainable and realistic in there—what's the difference? They're equally depressing and uninspiring. Measurable, attainable goals are easy, and I'm going to do them anyway: it's called work. It's the corporate equivalent of saying my goals for the day are waking up, getting out of bed, having a shower, making a list of attainable goals... Maybe those are goals if you're in rehab, but if you're a person with a job or a family they're just part of being a person.

I don't mean we should not make plans and share lists of tasks to help get stuff done. It's important to have everyone working at least occasionally in concert. In my experience people tend to do this anyway, but there's no harm in writing them down for everyone to see. Managers can handle this, and everyone should read them.

Why do these goals seem so dry? You love geoscience or engineering or whatever you do. That's a given. (If you don't, for goodness's sake save yourself.) But people keep making you do boring stuff that you don't like or aren't much good at and there's no time left for the awesomeness you are ready to unleash, if only there was more time, if someone would just ask. 

Stop thinking like this. 

You are not paid to be at work, or really to do your job. Your line manager might think this way, because that's how hierarchical management works: it's essentially a system of passing goals and responsiblities down to the workforce. A nameless, interchangeable workforce. But what the executives and shareholders of your company really want from you, what they really pay you for, is Something Amazing. They don't know what it is, or what you're capable of — that's your job. Your job is to systematically hunt and break and try and build until you find the golden insight, the new play, the better way. The real challenge is how you fit the boring stuff alongside this, not the other way around.

Knock someone's socks off, then knock them back on again with these seismic beauties.Few managers will ever come to you and say, "If you think there's something around here you can transform into the most awesome thing I've ever seen, go ahead and spend some time on it." You will never get permission to take risks, commit to something daring, and enjoy yourself. But secretly, everyone around you is dying to have their socks knocked right off. Every day they sadly go home with their socks firmly on: nothing awesome today.

I guarantee that, in the process of trying to do something no-one has ever done or thought of before, you will still get the boring bits of your job done. The irony is that no-one will notice, because they're blinded by the awesome thing no-one asked you for. And their socks have been knocked off.