The seemingly most-qualified people to set the compass for your company’s long-term strategic direction are the least-qualified for the job.

 

The strategy team had zero experience in their client’s particular industry. The actions they proposed were so outrageous that the insider experts unanimously predicted the sacred brand would be irreparably damaged. After weighing the opinions of his doomsaying experts against the fact base, the boss decided in favor of the outsiders’ recommendations. The new products in the new channel delivered 100 million dollars to the bottom line in the first year. 

The problem wasn’t that the insiders were stupid. 

It was that they were all insiders who:

  • had been fully trained in how to think exactly the same way about everything.
  • knew to accept every dearly-held assumption at face value.
  • had learned that to fit in, they needed to go along with the flow.

The other problem was they were all experts.

A study of 82,000 predictions made by nearly 300 industry leaders showed experts were really lousy at predicting outcomes – especially inside their own areas of expertise. This is really scary part. The seemingly most-qualified people to set the compass for your company’s long-term strategic direction are the least-qualified for the job.

Outsiders were unafraid to profane sacred cows.

The study showed generalists were better than experts at figuring out what the future holds. Political scientist Philip Tetlock found out why. Instead of focusing all of their attention on a narrow field like salty snacks, digestive distress, or manure spreaders, generalists worked across dozens of categories. Instead of blindly obeying dogma and worshipping entrenched assumptions, generalists deliberately sought out contradictory views. These they would integrate into broader pictures that reconciled differences instead of ignoring them. 

Tetlock also found all of the very best forecasters had two shared characteristics: extremely wide-ranging interests and unusually expansive reading habits. How many people on your forecasting team have extremely wide-ranging interests? We’ll bet even fewer have unusually expansive reading habits. For a good reference point, try Pew, who says one in four Americans did not read a single book last year. 

It is not important that all of an organization’s top people are extremely curious, well-read, and objective. The problem is when none of them are.

Experts said the earth was the center of the entire universe and the sun revolved around it. One man observed things that contradicted the wisdom of the experts. He encouraged others to look through their own telescopes and see for themselves. And then he had the audacity to insist that evidence yielded truth, not experts. His book was banned and he was imprisoned.

In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Dreger said “Galileo actively argued for a bold new way of knowing, openly insisting that what mattered was finding truth together through the quest for facts.”

So what can we do about it?

The answer is no more complex than what we could have learned on the high school debate team: be prepared to attack or defend opposing positions with the same intensity. This requires us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of every argument, every position. Some call it critical thinking, others call it learning.

Click here to see how one generalist outsider can help.