Simon Terry

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The Roles of External Experts

Experts are terrible at knowing what’s going to happen. One of the key role of external experts is introducing divergent opinions into a hierarchy. 

I’ve been reading Tim Hartford’s Adapt on the role of failure in success. The book begins with a review of the literature on how poor experts are at prediction. We live in a complex connected fast changing world. Experts, whether consultants, thought leaders, academics or futurists struggle to make predictions of what comes next. So if experts aren’t great at knowing what’s going to happen, why are they so popular?

External Experts are a Source of Variation

Even with the limits of their predictive power, external experts do two things well. They can supply confidence for organisations to tackle divergent ideas and they can help find divergent ideas internally in organisations and carry them around or through the hierarchy. The former occurs when senior executives hire external experts to bolster their risky decision. The latter is the source of the classic consultant joke that ‘a consultant borrows your watch to tell you the time’. 

In both cases, an external expert helps an organisation to break the patterns of its dominant thinking and explore variation with greater confidence. In an environment of rapid change the ability to experiment with variation is a key to adaptation. The expert may not be right but the learning and adaptation that results can be incredibly valuable. 

External Experts Build Capability

That learning is what differentiates great experts from the average ones. Great experts worry less about predicting what’s around the next corner. What they help organisations do is build the capabilities that have value in many scenarios in the future. 

Teaching organisations how to learn for themselves through experimentation, how to become more effective in change at scale, enabling teams to work more effectively and enabling individuals to thrive is a winning strategy in almost every scenario. Add the transfer of the way to build particular practices and expertise and you have a valuable proposition. 

Once you stop looking for experts to know everything, you can explore their potential to help your organisation to change and adapt through variation, experimentation and new capability. These roles are important new challenges for your internal experts too. 

If you’d like to chat more about how to build these capabilities and better leverage your internal experts, get in touch with Simon Terry. 


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