Research indicates that even when everyone within a group recognizes who the subject matter expert is, they defer to that member just 62% of the time; when they don’t, they listen to the most extroverted personKhalil Smith
Innovation must be founded on a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve. It takes a lot longer than you think too – the bad news is that all the talk of agility is often misplaced.
Unfortunately we live in a world that places a higher value on talking and having a hot take than on thinking. So we often leap to doing things rather than solving the right problems.
Relatively few businesses place value on purposeful thinking as ‘thinking about stuff’ doesn’t look like work. Some of my best work over the past few weeks has been thinking – but there’s precious little to show for it right now.
Too often we default to task-oriented leadership and “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” It’s an autocratic management style from another age that emphasises completing (often needless) tasks to meet (often pointless) goals.
This focus on production leads to ideas and plans which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.
It stems from school, where we are assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating. As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.
Very few people get promoted for asking difficult questions. So our organisations become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.
If you’re serious about solving the right problems, you need to be very good at hearing a lot of diverse opinions and seeking out a way forwarrd.
The Dangers of Listening To People Who Talk a Lot
One of the problems we face is that we are drawn to extroverts. Those who talk well and talk lots can command attention in meetings – and they get an unprecedented amount of airtime in modern organisations.
Whilst extroverts put it all out there for the world to see, introverts often keep their best ideas inside. If you’re ignoring them, you’re at risk of missing the problem and the solution.
As Khalil Smith writes – when our brains are left to their own devices, attention is drawn to shortcuts, such as turning focus to the loudest person in the room. And in a group setting “airtime” — the amount of time people spend talking — is a stronger indicator of perceived influence than actual expertise.
What Is An Expert Anyway?
The other challenge is organisations often have quite a narrow view of expertise. They rely on things like position in the hierarchy, titles and years of service. However – more expansive experience, like time spent with actual customers, tends to get overlooked.
The ‘iceberg of ignorance’, the idea that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable, is quite a blunt way of thinking about expertise. However, I’m betting that most people regarded as experts are positioned near the top of the iceberg.
Again – we often miss addressing the right problems as we listen to the ‘expert’ or the highest paid persons opinion. Remember – we are hardwired to defer to authority and seek guidance from the hierarchy.
Tapping Into The Inner World of Introverts
We have forgotten that solitude and taking time to think have a crucial role in problem-solving.
Between a third and a half of the population of the world define themselves as introverts. They have more activity in the part of the brain involved in internal processing: problem-solving, remembering and planning. Introverts get energy from an “inner world” of thoughts, ideas, reflections and memories.
Think about that. Pretty much half the people you come across today:
- Don’t thrive on endless meetings
- Don’t enjoy brainstorming
- Don’t want to attend away-days and conferences all the time.
Due to that inner world – introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.
In the networked age the surest path to success is no longer just listening to the loud and the powerful, but widening and deepening connections with everyone.