The Experts Creativity Dilemma: When Strength Becomes a Weakness

Are experts better at creativity? It depends! Our guest contributor, Yooeun Jeong, the visiting PhD candidate at the BI Norwegian Business School, explains to us why, sometimes, competent subject matter experts can miss the creative flow. And, most importantly, she reminds to us that training and organizational structures can make the difference. Get your experts out of the routine pit!

Interested in the experts’ domain? Download our White Paper!

You’ve crossed paths with them plenty throughout your career. Everyone in your organization knows who they are. Their presence often feels vital to the very fabric of your organization.

I am, of course, talking about experts. Experts are an indispensable part of the business landscape. They’re the ones we turn to when we have complex problems and tough challenges. But have you ever wondered what exactly makes these experts so exceptional? Or why, sometimes, they make mistakes despite their profound expertise and rich experience?

There has been extensive research to understand how experts are able to perform at such a high level. We often envision experts simply as individuals equipped with vast knowledge in a field. Of course, there’s no question that experts do possess a wealth of knowledge. The essence of their excellence, however, goes beyond just the sheer volume of their knowledge. Indeed, it lies in how they manage, navigate, and apply this knowledge.

Decoding the Expert Mind

So, if the key to understanding expertise lies not just in how much knowledge an expert has, but in how the expert leverages the knowledge; just how do experts leverage it?

When faced with a task or a problem, the first thing we do is understand and interpret it – asking, “what exactly is the problem that needs solving?” Novices often tend to focus on the obvious, surface-level details. Experts, on the other hand, interpret a problem at a deeper level, quickly getting to the heart of the problem and devising a plan to tackle it.

This proficiency is rooted in how experts organise and manage their knowledge. They store frequently encountered scenarios as “templates” in their memory, which helps them efficiently access relevant knowledge when confronted with a problem. This enables them to quickly recognise familiar patterns in unfamiliar situations, transforming what appears to be complex or unique problems into variants of a known problem. This skill, known as pattern recognition, is a cornerstone of experts’ ability to solve problems more efficiently and accurately.

Experts, nevertheless, are not infallible. Studies have shown that experts don’t always outperform novices – and sometimes, they may even be outperformed by novices in their fields of expertise! Just for a couple of examples: expert accountants perform more poorly than students when it comes to applying new information about a tax law; expert bridge players struggle more than beginners when adapting to a new version of the game, and the list goes on. This seemingly paradoxical phenomenon occurs because of the very mechanism that typically ensures experts’ success. Their reliance on pattern recognition can also become their Achilles’ heel.

When Experts Deal with Creativity: Bias and Heuristics

The concept of heuristics and biases describes the mental shortcuts we use to reduce the cognitive burdens. It was popularized by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. While effective at times, these shortcuts can introduce systematic biases in decision-making.

Experts, contrary to popular belief, are not immune to biases. Heuristics are part of a natural human tendency that applies to experts and novices alike. Our brain is simply not wired to deal with every piece of information in a complex environment, and heuristics help us make sense of things more easily. In fact, pattern recognition, experts’ forte and a key to their success, is in itself a heuristic. This, in turn, often leads them astray.

Experts draw heavily on their past experiences, using them as a lens to interpret new problems. This reliance, while often advantageous, can skew their perception. This leads them to view new problems through the lens of past problems. Such an over-reliance on known patterns can result in misinterpreting unique situations as familiar ones and overlooking novel solutions. They may approach a problem from a tried-and-true angle, not realising that the problem is actually fundamentally different from what they know and have experienced. This phenomenon, known as fixation, can make experts less flexible and adaptive in the face of new problems, significantly hindering their creativity and innovation.

Combatting the Creativity Paradox in the Expert Mind

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for preventing experts from succumbing to these biases. Recognising and being aware of biases is often considered a crucial first step. But overcoming biases requires more than just willpower or determination. Without proactive strategies, the biases can actually worsen. Luckily, there are various debiasing techniques that have been shown to be effective in combatting the types of biases that experts are particularly prone to. What is critical to understand, however, is that experts alone cannot counteract these biases. Creating a supportive and well-structured organisational environment that recognises these challenges and proactively works towards mitigating them is essential to effectively combat any potential expert biases and to fully harness the power of expertise.

Unlock the greatest version of yourself and your organization