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Flexpertise and Productive Disruptions by Michelle Barton

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Flexpertise and Productive Disruptions by Michelle Barton

Michelle began her talk by suggesting that in complex, dynamic and unpredictable situations, flexpertise resides in a process of collective knowing and not as a store of aggregated individual knowledge. Drawing from studies of wildland firefighters among others, we discuss how flexpertise can be created through operational processes designed to simultaneously engage different parts of the system to discern, interpret, and respond to dynamic conditions. We argue that organizational systems have patterned ways of behaving and relating and these patterns can be counterproductive in times of dynamic uncertainty. One aspect of flexpertise is the ability to halt dysfunctional momentum by deliberately introducing creative, productive disruptions—short sense-making breaks that interrupt a group’s habitual response patterns. When groups pause and reflect on their own patterns, they are better able to identify and apply relevant expertise when and where it is needed and to create new, adaptive solutions. Because flexpertise (in this case) is collective, cooperative, and fluid, there are also critical implications for managing the relational systems underlying operational processes and for leaders who want to build ‘flexpert’ systems.

In her studies of wildfire firefighters, Barton has seen that expertise has a paradoxical relationship with flexibility; there are a lot of constraints that come with expertise. Groups also face these constraints.

The challenge:

Groups get into patterned ways of thinking and acting—they become the “go to” group for certain things. They get good at certain behaviors, and organizations get used to using them in certain ways. Expertise becomes defined in a certain way and status and the patterns of decision-making follow suit.

Organizational emphasis on action reinforces these patterns. We value “action oriented” people. We emphasize setting and achieving goals. We reward productivity and efficiency.

These two together create momentum—people doing the things they know best as fast as possible. We like momentum. But it can be dangerous; it can create rigidity. During “momentum,” people can miss small indicators that the world is changing. And they have more trouble making sense of ambiguous events; they fail to interpret them effectively. They may fail to share knowledge, innovate, and adapt. They just move quickly and neglect to share the kind of knowledge that is more tacit and experiential.

How do we interrupt this process? How can we interrupt momentum? It’s often the last thing we want to do. When you are going fast at doing what you are good at, no one wants to stop. How do groups deliberately create disruptions to their thinking and action in productive ways?

  1. Deliberately looking for anomalies
    • Seeking small indicators of things that are not working, a potential weakness, unexpected data
    • Requires coordinating 2 types of expertise
      • Top level, system expertise
      • Bottom level, “in the moment” expertise
        • This one is more often missed in volatile environments
        • It’s the expertise on the edges, people who are in the field (not always the biggest expert)


A manufacturer of industrial engines. An engineer discovered hairline fractures in the field. Not a big deal, very tiny. The customer would call the rep and the rep would bring in maintenance and do a mini weld. It never got back to anyone else. But 1000s were being fixed on site! That should have gotten back to the design engineers and the manufacturer.

Organizations that do this catch problems early and revise their thinking more often.

2.  Create operational “moments of pause” (e.g. group leaders call for pause to reflect, debrief)

  • These scheduled ways of pausing and stepping back
  • Groups vary in how well they use these moments, but calling them is vital
  • Key is to use them to interrupt thinking patterns
    • What are some different perspectives on this?
    • Whose expertise would provide different insights?
    • What are our assumptions? How is this situation different from our past experiences?


In wildfires, you don’t want the utility pole to burn down. The fireman stationed his crew there. But he started thinking, who might look at this differently? Found a young, new guy who had been a river guide in the same valley. He remembered every afternoon as the valley heats, the wind shifts. If that is true, the fire would take a turn to the right and burn a town. So he moved the crew to the town instead, and the shift did happen. Good thing he asked!!

3.  Use unintentional disruptions to learn and adapt

  • Don’t waste near misses, crises; instead, dissect and learn
  • Near misses are often wasted. There is relief and self congratulations. But they are a huge opportunity for learning
  • After action reviews are often only held when things go wrong—that misses near misses!


Security forces advisory team in Afghanistan. XO put in protocols to manage situations like visiting their counterparts on the Afghan side. He has a meeting with his counterpart in the Afghan base; base was kind of deserted and he got the heebie-jeebies. Nothing happened. Meeting went fine. He went back to the protocol and made #1 “pay attention to your emotions.” It would have been easy for him to just dismiss the signal since nothing happened. But he validated it for everyone else.

  • Use crisis as opportunity to re-evaluate and update operational and relational systems.
    • Crisis can trigger learning


Entrepreneurs: A team was developing an industrial device when the design engineer quit for personal reasons. At first the leader panicked and wanted to hire a replacement ASAP. But instead she used the opportunity to consider what we need now and if that had changed. They realized they needed manufacturing expertise at that stage. They did not replace the person who left. It took them into the next step faster. “If he hadn’t quit or if we had replaced him, we’d be years behind.” A crisis helped them interrupt the pattern.


Harvard Graduate School of Education