Product Development

Provoking change and continuous improvement at work

15 May 2012 | Team EACPDS


Recently, while delivering a seminar, I had an adverse reaction when I was referred to as an expert.  My reaction was to feeling that I was being put in a box (even if a box that was intended as flattering).  It was also a reaction to the negative baggage associated with the word in the world of management theory.  And it was recognition that in the arena of product development it is the technical, not the theoretical, expert that makes the profound contributions.

The baggage tied to the word ‘expert’ is a carry forward from the management theory of Fredrick Taylor.  Taylor’s theory has become the basis for how we practice management in all venues within a business.  Taylorism based management has established intractable habits that are both deeply ingrained in us and detrimental.

Briefly, Taylor’s theory, focused on optimizing work efficiency, divides the various elements of work among different individuals.  The decision on what to work on (responsibility) is left to a manager.  The design of the method by which the work will be done (knowledge) is left to an expert.  The actual work (action) is done by a third individual.  This system believes there is one best way of doing work.  But the system has no way of incorporating the fourth element of work – feedback, the element of learning from doing, the element that informs improvement.

While Taylor’s approach to work had both supporters and disparagers when it was applied to blue collar work in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, it was universally rejected — at least theoretically — as an inappropriate management style for knowledge workers.  Knowledge workers emerged and rapidly expanded as a significant part of the workforce in the late 20th century. And this is the part of the workforce that includes the vast majority of us working in product development.

Do you want to be told what to do?  Like most, you would probably prefer not to be told what to do, but for the sake of organizing and coordinating efforts to accomplish goals, most of us recognize the logical necessity of focusing work efforts through the assignment of task.  Do you want to be told how to do what you are told to do?  I have never heard anyone volunteer that being micromanaged was a positive in their work life!

So my historical sense of experts who arrogantly believe they can devise the best way of doing work without actually doing the work themselves is part of why I shied away from the label.

The word does hold positive resonance.  It denotes a qualitative threshold on the learning curve, the passing of which, like receiving an advanced academic degree, is recognized and imbued with a measure of admiration and trust.  But, just as learning curves bend towards an asymptote, the expert can be seen as someone who has arrived at the flat grade of the learning curve. Here one can be characterized as knowing lots but now learning little.

The arrival at a destination of great knowing is vulnerable to the onset of hubris and the loss of the ambition to learn more.  Like the Newtonian physicists confronted by the emergence of quantum physics at the end of the 19th century, the arrogance of thinking you know it all is the harbinger of comeuppance.

For knowledge workers, the fairly recent concession that the individuals who do the work are the real experts of that particular work is both a reprieve from the worst constraints of lingering Taylor style management, and also a positive internal motivator to energize the work and to lighten its burden.

The last part of my discomfort came from admiration for the technical experts who are the real driving force of product development achievement and competitive strength.  One of the pillars of Lean Product Development is the development of a work force comprising ‘responsible experts’. The responsible part refers to individual contributors who have both the responsibility for some defined accomplishment and the authority to participate in the definition of the achievement plan.

The expert part derives from two commitments. An individual’s commitment to continual self-directed and externally directed learning is the necessary personality part of the equation. The other commitment is the organization’s commitment to the continual development of technical individual contributors, through systematic cultivation of a learning organization. This latter is the environment part of the equation. Appropriate personality and environment lead to desired behavior. And the appropriate behavior in this context leads to the generation of knowledge and the cultivation of experts.

A final thought is that most effective product development organizations are characterized by a variety of healthy, dynamic tensions that provoke change and continuous improvement. The technical individual contributor has their own analogous internal tension. The evolving expert balances a self-centered entrepreneurial ambition towards accomplishment and actualization against a necessary commitment to the larger community and its shared goals and knowledge. This internal tension of the hungry ambitious learner motivated by a larger purpose fuels the development of profound expertise. The best the rest of us can do is to ply our own knowledge to tend the development environment in support of the maturing of these business critical subject matter experts.