Why Your Next Hire Should be a Tweener, Rather than an ExpertApr 11, 2023
I hold experts in high regard.
Anyone who dedicates themselves to mastering a profession or specialized skill earns my respect. Whether they’ve developed proficiency practicing medicine or law, or they excel in an art form, sport or hobby, I admire their commitment and persistence. Talent developed from decades-long practice can instill confidence (pilots, surgeons), invoke awe (sculptors, gymnasts), or simply impress us (archers, magicians) with their combined ease and command.
The same applies in work. Whether they are leaders with experience turning around struggling start-ups, researchers with hundreds of published studies, architects with dozens of completed developments, or surgeons who have completed thousands of procedures, we are reassured by their extensive knowledge. They’ve literally been there and done that.
Yes, we value experts for good reason.
However, expertise can also limit us. Experts can become blinded by their own confidence, and reluctant to consider new thinking that contradicts their tightly held paradigm. They may presume—incorrectly—that their wisdom extends to other areas.
History is littered with examples of misguided overconfidence. From military strategy in Vietnam, to engineering design on the Challenger shuttle, to the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007, many dramatic failures can be attributed in part to experts believing that their previous experience was applicable to the current situation.
Also, experts often forget what it was like to be a beginner. They speak using the specialized terminology of their craft, while assuming that everyone else understands. Or they have a hard time explaining what they mean in plain English.
That’s why experts do extremely well with other experts in their domain, but may struggle to collaborate with novices. Unless they enjoy teaching, many experts prefer not to dwell on simple applications of their abilities. They love when their expertise is needed to save the day. This is not a criticism, just human nature. Whether we are talented at baking, speechwriting, drawing, or mathematics, we like our special skills to be noticed and needed.
When experts clash with experts.
Due to their success, combined with the adulation of others, experts naturally become attached to their perspectives. This can leave an expert resistant to, or distrustful of, new alternatives, even from another expert.
A patient seeking care for chronic pain will receive very different recommendations from a highly-trained expert in western medicine versus an equally esteemed expert in eastern medicine. Each may dismiss the other’s advice as inadvisable, or possibly dangerous.
Again, we can find myriad examples where experts were slow to adopt new ideas. In the mid-19th century, surgeons distrusted the concept of anesthesia, insisting that the patient’s experience of pain was valuable. When electricity initially became available, leading builders advised their clients against including electricity due to safety reasons.
We cannot simply rely on single domains of expertise to solve a problem.
Which brings me to analytics. As data scientists become ever more specialized in the application of AI, neural networks and natural language processing, their work will become less and less understandable to others. Similarly, experts from other fields (doctors, engineers) will be asked to adopt AI-facilitated solutions that they do not fully understand. Already we are seeing signs of suspicion.
The cross-over professional.
Because of our love for experts, there seems less recognition of, or appreciate for, those who have multiple areas of knowledge without necessarily achieving expert status in any. Or the person who excels in the process of communicating concepts between two areas.
I call them tweeners.
This combination of abilities allows the person to:
- Recognize important developments in one domain,
- Understand how these could impact a different domain, and
- Communicate clearly and constructively to professionals in each.
This could be a law clerk (with knowledge in medicine) who notices a public health threat, or a project manager (with an understanding of architecture) who notices a design flaw, or a manufacturing manager (with some training in consumer research) who sees a new product opportunity.
A tweener has multiple interests and likes to find connections between them. Their moderate expertise in multiple fields—rather than a deep dedication to one—is an asset. Plus, if that tweener has good people skills, he or she may also build a more lasting, constructive bridge between the two groups.
A business-analytic tweener: the analytic translator
Having operated in the no-man’s land between business professionals and academically-trained data scientists, I am well aware of the value tweeners can bring.
These two groups are especially prone to miscommunication and both report that their interactions with each other are frustrating or inadequate. As a result, most analytic projects fail to deliver measurable business value.
This is why I recommend that analytic teams train or hire an analytic translator among their ranks. Rather than fortifying their group with yet another expert, consider the value of having someone who “speaks” business and notices both opportunities and potential problems. While they may not lead the analytic portion of a machine learning project (although they might do that too!), they will make sure the project meets the business needs and that the business team understands the results.
Next time you have an open position, consider whether the best use of company resources may be to hire a tweener to bridge company goals and the analytic work that fuels it.
You, and the other groups you work with, will be happy you did.