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How to Break the Expert’s Curse by Ting Zhang

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Dr. Ting Zhang shared her research with the LILA Community.

We have the pervasive problem of the expert-novice gap. Consider an illustrative example from an interview with a medical student. During her first weeks, she admits that she did not know something basic when she walked into the operation room: “where do I stand.” Her attention would be better directed on the substantive procedures in the OR. Experts find it difficult to relate to novices, though they themselves were once novices. This is because one, they have imperfect memory which leads them to mistakenly think that they have always known what they know now. Two, experts are victims of the curse of knowledge, so they assume the uninformed parties are knowledgeable. Three, difficult processes have become automatic for experts, and experts underestimate the amount of time it takes novices to learn.

Intervention studies have illuminated more about the expert-novice gap. Ting asked students that finished summer internships (students who were “1-month” experts) to give advice to inexperienced, interns-to-be. These 1-month experts were put into different conditions. One group was asked to simply recall their internship experience prior to giving advice to novices, and the other group was asked to rediscover their experience by reading their personal journaling of their experience during their 1-month internship prior to giving advice to novices. Novices rated the advice that came from experts that had rediscovered their experience to be more helpful.

The next intervention study pushed this further by conditioning a group of experts to rediscover just the emotional experience of a novice. Guitar players with more than 3 years of experienced were asked to flip the guitar and play with their non-dominant hand. This experimental group and another control group of experts were then shown a video of poor guitar performance of a novice and were asked to advise him. The control group gave vague, discouraging, and non-actionable feedback. The experts who had experienced the emotional pains of a novice (by playing the guitar with their non-dominant hand) gave advice, which were more specific, actionable, and encouraging.

Synthesis of Small Group Conversation

It may be difficult to implement the first intervention of “full rediscovery” of reviewing journals because people are asked to do “one more thing” (document their experience) which does not immediately benefit them. This intervention requires personal motivation (i.e. wanting to have a detailed chronicle of major event to help someone else who may also go through it). Without such motivation, it’s difficult for the company to foster similar behavior.

We explored the possibility of reading someone else’s journal account of a novice experience (so that not everyone has the burden of journaling). While easier to implement, the effect of such an intervention is mild as experts do not engage as well with personal writing that is not their own.

However, the second intervention with the use of “emotional rediscovery” (using the non-dominant hand) provides a venue for feasible solutions to the expert-novice gap. One idea we were optimistic about was the idea of using the “letter to my younger self” as another intervention. This is literally the act of writing to your younger self. This may put the expert in the mindset of their past novice selves. This is the important key: how do you shift an expert’s mindset to understand that of a novice?

Reverse mentoring puts the leader in a novice’s mindset. Consider the example of a senior leader having to learn social media from twenty-somethings. It makes the expert vulnerable and in the mode of a novice. In additional to addressing the point on awakening the expert’s emotional vulnerability, or emotional rediscovery, we may consider the challenging them with learning technical aspects so they may remember what they did not know how to do.

There was a list of other good ideas. Experts are very much in touch with the stories of their failure. Such stories make the novice feel closer to the expert. Experts who give good advice know when the novice would be confused and make that explicit in their mentoring. Experts should consider just asking a lot of questions to the novice first. There is a tendency for the expert to try and address the novice’s question right away when they come for help. However, much more can be gained from the expert asking the novice. An important question is to ask the novice, “how did you get there?”, “there” refers to the point of coming to that question, or conclusion. Understanding the novice’s journey can help the expert understand the novice’s mindset.

Perhaps, the expert-novice gap must consider who the appropriate expert is. Should the gap between the novice and the expert be one, two, or three levels? Choosing the appropriate expert level would be the first step.

Key Take-Aways

  1. The key to closing the expert-novice gap is getting the expert to understand the mindset of a novice.
  2. Not all experts are the same, and not all expert-novice gaps are the same. Finding the right level of expert is important.


LILA members, click here to see the PPT presentation of this talk.


  1. Marga Biller

    June 18, 2015

    In a recent study, Ting Zhang identifies how experts who are looking to be mentors, can reverse the “curse of knowledge” and tap into what it was like to learn something new. She describes two specific actions that experts can take:

    when learning something new, proactively document the early-stage learning process with the intention of reflecting on the process and using this knowledge later on to help others
    re-experience what it was like to be a novice

    While not exactly the same as our exploration of Flexpertise, this study reinforces some of the ideas that exploration we talked about during the October gathering. Specifically, Jens Beckmans pre-cursers to flexible expertise including that:

    We take short-cuts to learning which do exactly that – they cut short learning.and
    We do not always know what we do not know
    Not Relevant trap – the expert passes on what they know and that knowledge can become outdated quickly
    Anesthesia of familiarity

    Erik Dane suggested some ways out of cognitive entrenchment which can also be an expertise trap. For example, collaboration decreased cognitive entrenchment. The enhanced dynamism of the collaborative group forced decisions and adjustments in response to other people’s perspectives. Such an environment is less predictable, so people are more alert in understanding causality and more engaged in sense-making. Moreover, it triggers a functional level of doubt that fosters flexibility of a beginner’s mind. A provocative idea of “promiscuous pair” programming came from researchers Beck and Andres in 2005. It is a new spin to the standard pair programming, an exercise of one person directing and another person programming on the computer. Simply, people swap partners at regular intervals.

    While Tzang’s research focuses primarily on expertise rather than flexpertise, the findings might be practical ways to enable experts in our organizations to be more in touch with the sources of their expertise and share it in flexible ways. If you are interested in reading more about Zhang’s research and potential opportunities to participate in her research, click this link Read Article

  2. Marga Biller

    June 18, 2015

    Dave Perkins replied to the research and was published on the HBS Working Knowledge Site:

    This intriguing set of findings has a provocative connection to a theme a number of colleagues and I have been pursuing this year in the LILA (Learning Innovations Laboratory) group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a group of chief learning officers and others with similar roles that engages in inquiry into themes around organizational learning, leadership, and innovation. This year, our theme is “flexpertise,” meaning the flexible deployment of expertise. Expert knowledge has both vertical and lateral potential, vertical potential in the sense of deeper and deeper technical applications and lateral potential to address challenges beyond its most immediate focus. However, the lateral potential tends to get stuck in organizational silos and in the minds of the experts themselves. Ting Zhang’s research concerns experts sharing insights with novices, but some of her techniques seem very relevant to mobilizing lateral pot ential. The barrier is much the same in both cases: much of expert knowledge is tacit. When experts work in their own domains, pattern recognition activates the knowledge, but when experts try to reach outside their specialties, strategies are needed to surface some of that tacit knowledge and make less usual connections. Ting Zhang’s research very helpfully suggests some ways that might be done!

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