Wed 6 Dec 2006
Suzuki Roshi, a Zen master, said once that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”. This quotation comes to my mind quite frequently these days when I observe the influx of seasoned experts into a certain team and what that brings with it.
I recently realized that experts are, almost by definition, good at repeating things. That’s how you become an expert – you do something a few times, do it good, and then you are expected to do it as good next time. How you achieve it? By applying known methods and ways of work, by making the situation as simmilar as possible to the previous ones. The more it becomes simmilar the more it becomes predictable.
So experts can be defined as people who know how to bring predictable results by reapplying known methods. And it mostly works, brings those results – except for one thing it can’t bring: innovation.
Even a brief look at the history of human thought shows clearly that experts were always wrong about what is possible and how the things will look in the future. According to experts things heavier than air can’t fly, wars can’t be won by manouverability, Internet is not needed, television is not possible and businesses have to be strictly hierarchical.
I don’t know of a case where a true innovation was a result of a predictable process managed by experts. Such processes work well on incremental improvement of what was invented already. So, experts are good at retaining the status-quo, beginners move the world forward.
It’s not to say that experience or knowledge are not needed. But to be innovative you need all that – and a beginner’s mind. You have to be open to risk, to doing things differently, most importantly to question the established rules, general wisdom, pundits outlook and expert’s advice. If everyone is doing something consider it the first argument to do it differently. If all experts agree – be suspicious and question their argument. If someone says “why reinvent the wheel” – change company.
Retaining a beginner’s mind through our life is probably one of the hardest challenges we face. Human mind has a tremendous tendency to become inert, comfortable in a set of ideas and concepts that become stiffer and more limiting as the time goes by without challenging or questioning them. It can’t be probably avoided completely, but I hope it can be limited.
I hope because I don’t want to become an expert some day…