Adaptive expertise – key to a good customer experience, key to the future

Think about the astronauts on the famous Apollo 13 “We have a problem, Houston” mission, who successfully built an air filter from ill-fitting parts whilst in space. They weren’t trained for that task. It’s a compelling example of adaptive expertise.

Pete Faulkner phoned me up after reading my recent blog post about how important it is to help people become “learning animals”. He sent me a presentation about adaptive expertise which I found absolutely fascinating and I ended up finding out quite a lot more about the subject from other places as well.

Put simply, an adaptive expert is somebody who can

  • Work without problems on routine (well-known) situation AND
  • Find quickly a solution to a new situation

Adaptive experts are the result of the kind of learning animal behaviour I was talking about. And as I’ve been thinking about it, it seems really relevant in two main ways

  • Adaptive expertise makes for excellent customer experience
  • Adaptive expertise helps a company deal with a changing world

As you read on you’ll see I then talk about what experts do so well that others don’t. And another day I’ll talk about how we can develop adaptive expertise.

Four levels of expertise

Pete’s presentation draws on the stories of weather prediction, metro disasters and aeroplane incidents to illustrate the characteristics of an expert. It talks about four levels of expertise

  • Novice – Lives in the moment. Can’t recognise complex relationships. Produces limited options.
  • Imposter (others more politely call it “frustrated novice”) – Masters the procedures and tricks. Lacks a sense of dynamics. Can’t improvise when assumptions fail.
  • Routine expert – Great at everyday stuff, has problems with ill-structured or novel problems
  • Adaptive expert – Understands the structure of the problem domain and can use it to deal with fuzzy challenges or novel problems

Adaptive expertise makes for excellent customer experience

I’ve met some adaptive experts, and it was a good experience.

  • The guy in our corner hardware store is SO much more helpful than the young assistants at Homebase. He knew exactly what I needed within me saying a few words.
  • My daughter in the kitchen was able to rescue something that went wrong at Christmas. The intended chocolate roulade became something entirely different and stole the show (see picture). That’s adaptive expertise.
  • I had a great example with the IT department recently when my Skype had a problem. The first few people I spoke to were probably imposters – unable to improvise when my problem wasn’t on their script – content to give me a task to do (reinstall everything again please) but with no real idea why that would help. The second-level support person was a routine expert, quickly realised it went beyond the everyday diagnosis and knew who to refer it to. The third-level support person was an adaptive expert: They cut to the chase, made good suggestions, sorted things out.
  • My wife described her “instinct” to send someone into hospital (correctly), and the next minute referring someone else for debt counselling. I never cease to be amazed at the breadth of stuff that she has to deal with. Talking to a GP is SO different to phoning 111 where they follow scripts.
  • A lot has been written about the empathy-trained Apple store employees, but leaving aside the psychology, they are extraordinarily knowledgeable and the Genius mindset does appear to be adaptive expertise.

When I think about the customer experience I have had from a company, I am delighted when I talk to an adaptive expert. I love working with adaptive experts.

This is important for our company. What if the normal customer experience for someone interacting with us was that delightful one of talking to an adaptive expert. What would it take for that to happen?

Adaptive expertise helps us deal with a changing world

It is important for companies like ours to have adaptive experts “as it is thanks to those people that companies can deal with change (of course the company needs to listen to them). Especially in times of crisis, with budget cuts and uncertainty hanging over companies like a Damocles sword, it is important that a company nurtures adaptive experts. Through their adaptive abilities they are able to devise new products/services, new methods to work, and make the best of the opportunities the current situation has to offer them. But even when the number of threats are low for companies, adaptive experts are important. They are able to combine already existing procedures/products and create something new from them. In meetings they are better able to combine the (seemingly contradictory) inputs and ideas, summarise them and draw conclusions out of them” (Carbonell)

What do experts do so well that others don’t?

I thought the set of characteristics of an adaptive expert in the presentation was very compelling. Experts:

  • Recognise patterns. Know what’s causing the problem from a few symptoms.
  • Detect anomalies. Spotting the unusual thing in a lot of data. Noticing what’s missing.
  • Keep the big picture. Monitor what’s relevant. Act towards a goal. Judge priorities and most likely strategies. Don’t get overwhelmed by the data.
  • Understand the way things work. Can “see” what’s going on inside. Know why things are done this way and how to change it. Coordinate teams. Know what tools can and cannot do.
  • Observe opportunities, able to improvise. Not fooled by what the computer “says” is wrong. Can act against the apparent data. Can dream up a range of novel strategies.
  • Relate past, present and future events. Can run a mental simulation to work out whether a primary cause could in fact cause the symptoms over time, find alternative causes to the first idea. Can anticipate the future consequences. Can see it from several other perspectives.
  • Pick up on very subtle differences. Spot nuances that novices can’t even force themselves to see.
  • Address their own limitations. Aware of the quality of their own thinking. Work around memory limitations. Adapt strategy and include other people.

Here’s an academic summary of the characteristics of adaptive expertise for anyone who wants it in the technical language of dispositions, metacognition and cognitive skills. And a review of some different ways academics talk about expertise.

Does this ring true for you? Which of these characteristics do you have?

Do you immediately think of other people who you know can “handle anything” in their area of expertise? (Not necessarily space cadets!) What makes them different?

Is this more important in some professions than others, or do we all need it?


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