The Trouble With Relying on Expert Answers & Not Your Own

in Uncategorized


Recently, I had one of those “a-ha” moments with a
client as we were working through improving a key process in his company. In
the middle of our dialogue about improvement opportunities to test, he stopped
me and said, “We are talking about a lot of ideas, but when are YOU going
to improve it?” It was right then that it struck me that I had failed when
we contracted our relationship, but also he was caught in a common paradigm of

The challenge comes in the way we are conditioned to learn. As
children, our primary mode of knowledge building came from trial and error
discovery. I’m fascinated to observe my five year old daughter and her nearly
two year old brother play. They make predictions, test them out, fail, and then
try again from what they’ve learned. This is knowledge building, action
learning. It’s fantastic. 

Unfortunately, as John Dewey (1994) points out in an essay on
“Thinking in Education” that opens the great book
Teaching And The
Case Method
 my children will soon be trained or conditioned
to learn differently as they enter school. No longer will they learn by doing,
but we’ll place them in rows of desks in front of a teacher (the expert) who
will instruct them on facts or “what’s known.” They’ll learn to
memorize and perform to set expectations. Hopefully, they won’t also lose the
ability to learn and build knowledge through action.

Learning through action is experiential. One of the premier
thinkers in the area of experiential learning is
David Kolb,
a professor as Case Western Reserve University. Kolb recognized experience as
essential to learning and development. This concept has also carried over into
organizational systems through the work of scholar practitioners like
Chris Agryris at Harvard
Donald Schön at
MIT who began to look at loop learning in organizations,
Edgar Schien at
MIT in his work in process consultation, and 
Peter Senge at MIT for his
framing of the learning organization. 

In quality improvement, probably one of the most known
experiential learning model is the
Shewhart-Deming Cycle or
Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle for improvement. The PDSA cycle has since been improved
upon by the
Associates in
Process Improvement
and is known as the Model for
 which is widely used in healthcare and other

In each of these scholar practitioner’s work is a recognition
that learning and developing knowledge is the result of thinking, doing, and
learning. This brings me back to our discussion at the beginning about my
consulting relationship. In the 1960’s Edgar Schein from MIT first described
three ways consultants work with managers.
Peter Block
would later describe these as the
expert role, pair-of-hands
role, or the
collaborative or process consultative role. The
pair-of-hands role is essentially outsourcing or hiring someone to do something
you don’t have the time or expertise to do the work. The two roles relevant to
my client example are the expert and collaborative roles. In the example given
at the beginning, my client was looking to me to be the expert role and wanted
and expected me to solve his problem and fix it. 

The expert roles is comfortable for many. It goes back to that
example of the problem with our learning system. With an expert helping you,
you don’t have to take responsibility for learning and improving because
someone else (the teacher or consultant) is expected to do it for you. If it works
out, great, if not, you can always say it was a bad consultant, but either way
you may be left with a loss rather than a gain because there was no knowledge
gained as the client. The export role is probably the most common
consultant/client relationship.

The collaborative model or process consultation model is my
preference and the role I had been hired to fill. In this model, the consultant
acts as an improvement advisor or coach that guides the client system in
actively participating in the improvements they wish to make in their
organizations. In this approach, the client has complete responsibility over
their change activities and, in the process, gains new skills and abilities as
they roll up their sleeves and actually make changes that result in improvements.
As their advisor, it’s my job to enable their learning, ask powerful questions,
introduce them to tools and best practices, and support them as they test
changes and act on what they learn. The end result is faster and more
sustainable change and a client system that builds capacity for organizational
learning and improvement. My kind of win-win.

As someone considering a consultant for a project, I encourage
you to consider what kind of engagement and experience you hope to have. Do you
want to learn as part of the process? What is the outcome you hope to achieve?
There are a plethora of expert consultants out there who can support you with
their answer or a well drafted report summarizing their analysis. There are
also many improvement advisors like me who would be happy to collaborate with
you, to roll up our sleeves, and learn together as we make great changes. Make
the choice that’s right for you.

the meantime, I need to sit and re-define what role I’m filling with my client
today. As collaborators in change, I know we will learn a ton together and I
know we can make great improvements that will benefit his team and customers
for years to come. What fun.