Provocation #1
The Expertise Conundrum

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The Covid-19 crisis gives us an opportunity to think about a key aspect of leadership: how much can and should leaders rely on the input of experts to make decisions, and how much latitude should they retain for themselves to decide from a generalist perspective? 

To a striking degree, this crisis has featured calls for political, business, and other institutional leaders to “follow the science” by deferring to experts in relevant domains, prominently including virologists, epidemiologists, and medical councils. Many decisions, too, have been predicated on modeling by data scientists extrapolating from data to forecast levels of contagion, resource use, and mortality under different scenarios. In the face of a global threat to lives and livelihoods, no one is interested in arbitrary or ideology-driven decision-making. 

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Yet, opposing perspectives have emerged within this broad consensus – along with a growing appreciation that the relevant science is still rapidly evolving. With different camps touting incompatible solutions, some experts have seemed too ready to cast those with competing ideas as politically motivated. Citizens around the world, having been told that the science shows one thing only to be told subsequently that the opposite is irrefutably proven, grow confused, cynical, and noncompliant. Some worry that most experts have earned their sterling reputations by doing narrowly focused work within sub disciplines of their fields, and their voices are not being sufficiently balanced by other valuable perspectives. Some, too, suspect that scientists and models are being used to shut down discussion of matters they view as still open to debate.

All this makes the crises precipitated by a novel coronavirus an ideal case study for considering the role of the leader in a complex situation. Many leaders are genuinely committed to analytical, data-driven approaches, but acutely aware that decisions must be made in conditions of high uncertainty, where the science is not settled. Perhaps some are not above selectively choosing the “science” that lends an authoritative and objective aspect to decisions their gut prefers. Even then, however, perhaps a prominent display of at least claiming the value of evidence-based management might still have a positive effect, if it encourages people to find facts for themselves–and in the future expect and demand less decision-making by whim. Even when experts disagree on fundamental questions and individually fail to see the bigger picture of a complex phenomenon, their established “way of knowing” can influence others to believe more in rigorous truth-seeking through experimentation, careful analysis, and the broad dissemination of findings.  

How should leaders change based on what is being revealed by this case study? Does it yield any general guidance for how to arrive at timely decisions that are sound and will be embraced? Does it suggest a way for leaders to know when experts of different kinds should come to the fore, and what weights should be placed on their advice? What risks should be accepted in the face of immediate and longer term costs of measures (example lives versus the economy)?  Is it possible to self-diagnose when one has succumbed to “analysis paralysis” or otherwise abdicated responsibility for making a tough call in the face of competing values or tradeoffs? How do we prepare leaders better to step up to this responsibility?

the Drucker Forum Editors 

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What do you think? Use the reply function to post comments of up to 300 words in length. In the interests of lively but respectful debate, we accept strongly-held views and robust comment, but not personal attacks or political statements.

14 comments

  1. Many people fundamentally misunderstand the mechanism of scientific progress, which is to move on the basis of assumptions, learn something in an experimental way and then, on the basis of new information, take the next step. So the fact that “expert” advice changes should not come as a surprise to anyone who understands this process. What we need are leaders who can competently and patiently explain this to people.

    1. Excellence in expertise lies in offering something that is refutable, and by definition, something wrong or incomplete, sometimes. The decision to act on that expert offering is about making sense of that offering and its variations. Making sense itself may require a necessary ex-ante act (or a series of acts) of imagination, of seeking creative new pathways, and not consolidating status. This can only be achieved through a process of collective diffusion that questions norms, not a pronouncement or diktat from above. Identifying, enabling, and supporting (and sometimes withdrawing from the process without abjuring responsibility) those mechanisms of governance and diffusion, makes for effective leadership. In this process the leadership positions may change rather like migratory birds.

      Too much of management thinking is centred round a linear adoption of expert ideas by a leader who mediates on behalf of the less capable many. Too much of that kind of leadership is a function of power and structures that protect a defined power base. The objective of leadership would be to encourage entrepreneurial capabilities of the many who can mediate the absorption of expertise and offer their own.

    2. Absolutely true – the science is never settled. A hypothesis remains valid until falsified in the course of the progress of science. Karl Popper gave us a great narrative for a better understandig of science. He also made it clear that hypotheses that cannot be falsified are not part of the realm of science. I can think of a few in the cotext of Covid19….

  2. The Macy Conferences were a set of meetings of scholars from various disciplines held in New York under the direction of Frank Fremont-Smith at the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation starting in 1941 and ending in 1960. The explicit aim of the conferences was to promote meaningful communication across scientific disciplines, and restore unity to science. Was that a way to address the problems we still have with experts?

    1. Please consider the response “Opportunity for Experts 2.0: an alternative for the #NewMacyMeeting ( https://medium.com/@gmh_upsa/opportunity-for-experts-2-0-an-alternative-for-the-newmacymeeting-d888720cdb5e )” to the story “Oportunidad para Expertos: Grandes Cambios, Circunstancias, Grados de Claridad y los Estados ( https://medium.com/@gmh_upsa/oportunidad-para-expertos-grandes-cambios-circunstancias-grados-de-claridad-y-los-estados-871513346a8c ).”

  3. The time of (generally irresponsible) experts is over.
    New prospects are emerging in the paradigm shift from competition to collaboration, even if universities and research remain main bastions of a system that is fading away.
    Most of the experts still believe in a neutral position, which is an illusion. Self-reflexivity (first person) and interrelations (second person person) are necessary complements to this third view science.
    I worked years on how, as a policymaker, to reduce the gap between research and policymaking, to finally find out it is not a good question.
    In a complex, rapidly changing and unpredictable world, there is no need to understand before acting, and theory comes from practice, not the other way round.
    Citizen science and consumers wisdom are threatening the work and status of formal researchers and experts, and this is a good thing.
    The new skills and competencies to navigate through uncertainty are very different, by nature, to those traditional we still believe in. They imply humility, sense-making and intuitive)active listening to what is going on.
    We need to look at things from another angle and at things which are not there.

  4. The incident of Covid-19 coupled with the unprecedented manner through which it emerged on the global frontiers, particularly at a time when virtually all nations of the world are unprepared for its emergence proves to humans the need to foster a post-scientific alliance/synergy/commitment/integration.
    Scientific premisses are necessary in times like this when “new normals”- the irreversible circumstances that live with us- like EIDs, are rife. A case study is drawn to even, the role of meteorologists in inferring at a certain season when a certain disease will be much or less( cases of malaria and Corona virus).
    Leaders must “follow science backed by evidence-based management” to avoid consequences of death and a shrinking economy. Persons like Bolsonaro have learnt their lessons from the Corona virus pandemic. Covid-19 is a complex phenomenon no doubt, but in the face of mixed scientific reactions, facts and fallacies, the rudimentary approaches for it’s curtailment( pointing to the three C’s of transmission in a bid to lessen the effect of the “Pareto principle”) have helped nations.
    Recently, Saudi Arabia has decided to cut it’s Official Selling Price of crude oil to reduce weak refining margins and cushion the effect of a benchmark in response to the effect of the pandemic on the economy.
    Any leadership at this time that relegates the powers of scientific injunction will decimate the masses and shrink her economy.

  5. An expert might read Shakespeare and find him weak in Chemistry. Leaders need more generalists to make sound judgements.

  6. “[…] we have known that leadership rests on being able to do something others cannot do at all or find difficult to do even poorly.”
    (Peter F. Drucker, Managing in a Time of Great Change, 1995, p.115f.)

  7. I touched the subjects on “relying on experts” in a conversation with Julia Kirby and Steve Denning that Steve documented in the following article @Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2020/04/09/drucker-forum-2020-leadership-in-the-coronavirus-crisis/#6fa9eb1c58c0

    My statement in this context: “it’s not about experts, who may be excellent managers in their field. To be a good leader you must be able to look beyond one highly specialized field of expertise. John Seely Brown has pointed out that we are now facing not just complex problems but “entangled” problems. The world is totally networked with entangled issues. You cannot solve them with a single big plan. You need also leaders who can see more than the technical problems, and see the people aspect and can use common sense and reason.”

    1. Dear Richard,

      In a world where hardhead gatekeepers have been escalating since WWII to reduce democracy to the point that now China seems more democratic than what used to be The West, my synthesis of your “… conversation with Julia Kirby and Steve Denning” is that under The Wealth of Globalization context, we still have what are supposed to be leaders under The Wealth of Nations context of the Contemporary Age operating as managers while keeping potential leaders in lower contexts. That means that we lack the needed global leaders of the Cybernetic Age under The Wealth of Globalization to enable “leadership everywhere.” To do so, maybe it might be useful, for example, my humble most recent Medium response “Opportunity for Experts 2.0: an alternative for the #NewMacyMeeting ( https://medium.com/@gmh_upsa/opportunity-for-experts-2-0-an-alternative-for-the-newmacymeeting-d888720cdb5e ).”

  8. The coronavirus crisis has brought on the surface, the incapability of many leaders to decide what is their goal. As a leader, if you have clarity on what you want to achieve, then you can ask the right questions and seek the “expert” advice that is required, in any way or form it will become available to you (consultants, forecast models etc.) For example, if you are running a country, (probably) your biggest trade off is, saving lives vs saving the economy. If you are running a business, your trade off is saving peoples jobs vs saving the business itself. So what do you want to do? If you know what is your goal, then it all becomes clear, you don’t have to over-analyze the situation. You can make decisions fast, using the correct expertise.

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