Be Wary of Experts

Life is hard. And in an age where technology is seemingly everywhere — often interrupting our productivity while improving it at the same time — life can often seem even more complicated than it needs to be.

The business world is no different. In fact, many economists and business leaders argue that today’s global economy is as complicated as it has ever been. Information is in abundance, traveling across continents in the blink of an eye through channels like social media, email and — to the select few who already own a pair — emerging technologies such as Google Glass.

Because information and the ability to publish is so widely accessible, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of people who have branded themselves as “experts” in a given field.

Whereas expert opinion may have been limited in the 1960s to those qualified enough to have their academic or expert work vetted and published by a well-known journal, magazine or book, Twitter and the accessibility of the Internet allows pretty much anyone to start a website and brand themselves as the expert.

All this has made life harder on business leaders and managers, according to Noreena Hertz, author of “Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World” and professor at the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty at University College London.

With leaders having to wade through more noise than ever, Hertz said decision-making has been made more difficult. She said prudent leaders should be wary of the so-called expert label. Instead of taking expert opinion at face value, leaders should seek out a diverse stream of information.

Even going after information sources that go against a person’s pre-existing beliefs is wise to make sure all information is taken into consideration before reaching a conclusion.

Talent Management spoke with Hertz on the topic. The following are edited excerpts.

In your book, you talk about being wary of experts. What do you mean by that?

What I’m not saying is ignore all expert advice. Of course, experts do have insights that can be really valuable. What I am saying is don’t blindly follow every expert’s advice, because, as my research finds, a lot of experts do get things wrong. In a study of 64,000 expert predictions done over a 16-year period, experts didn’t know better than a monkey randomly throwing a dart at a board. So we need to not trust them blindly, and we need to interrogate expert opinion ourselves.

With so much information these days, how can business managers understand what sources of information are credible?

Managing the information overload is a real challenge. Our default faced with the overload is to actually what I call narrow-cast — to kind of hunker down and focus in on fewer sources than ever — you know, the analyst who we always got our information from, the newsletter that we always read. But we lose in that process a lot of new forms of information that can be very useful.

So whether that’s crowdsourced information emerging out of social media, or whether it’s information that challenges our pre-existing beliefs, I think we need to consciously seek out diverse and different points of view — some points that do challenge our beliefs, because that’s another thing that we’re prone to be drawn to: information that confirms what we already believe. … We’ve got to push against that natural bias, because there’s so much research now that supports the importance of gathering different and diverse points of view and bringing those into the equation.

Another theme in your book is decision-making. What have you observed as some of the mistakes business leaders make with decision-making?

With the rate of technological change and just the complexity of the world, it’s really important to carve out time to think. And this is one of the biggest challenges that leaders who I speak to are now facing. Partly this has to do with the email overload, with this sense that we constantly have to respond immediately. And partly it’s due to the continuous state of disruption that many of us find ourselves in.

Yet the smartest decision-makers I interviewed for my book — from people running the world’s most successful hedge funds to one of the world’s most successful Hollywood film producers, to tech innovators to fighter pilots to emergency room doctors — all of these had in common that they actively carved out time to think, a moment in their day where they could think about the bigger, strategic challenges they were facing; think about what they really wanted to achieve and what the issues were.

Because without that time, we risk constantly focusing on the immediate and never dealing with what actually matters. And so I think that is a theme that came up time and time again, and I think organizations are really starting to recognize this. One organization I spoke to [even] banned people from sending emails to others who are working physically on the same floor. I think people are finding ways to manage this. I try and take a weekly digital sabbath, where I don’t check emails, where I don’t check social media — so that I can have that moment, that proper recharge time that one needs.