Avoid the Expert Effect When Consulting

The “expert effect,” roughly, is the inability of someone who has achieved mastery of a subject to relate that concept to a non-expert. This is especially important to be aware of with consulting. As a Certified Function Point Specialist (CFPS), I spend a great deal of time working with Subject Matter Experts (SME) discussing function point counts for various software projects.

A lot of these discussions focus on the SME explaining how a particular piece of software functions. Of course, he or she knows everything about the software – I don’t, but I need to be as informed as possible in order to appropriately size it. Essentially there is a gap in my knowledge and I am dependent on the SME to fill it – which is not always easy (“Why can’t you understand what I’m talking about?!” is a commonly unexpressed, but felt, sentiment).

Keeping the expert effect in mind, there are a few things you can do to make it easier to collaborate with an a SME.

In discussions with a SME, always be mindful of the effort it took to become an expert. Every word of what seems like a “simple” explanation or question is back-loaded with hours, days, years of contextualized study and experience. Keep that in mind and be patient when relating concepts. Do not expect the SME to “get it” in the ‘”right” context (i.e. your context) immediately when sharing a concept or asking them a question. Losing patience is disrespectful to not only the SME, but also to your own efforts in becoming an expert!

Be aware that a SME can also have the tendency to be overconfident in the simplicity of an explanation. This is the other side of that coin. Sometimes when the consultant (me!) searches for clarity on a concept or asks for more detail, the SME will get annoyed because they feel it has already been explained simply. Find a polite way to point out that the reason for more questions is that there is still a knowledge gap to bridge for your own unique perspective. Of course, if it were so simple to know their system, they would not be the expert!

Working with an expert is obviously valuable – he or she knows the topic at hand to the fullest extent. But, distilling that knowledge into digestible pieces can be an exasperating challenge. Understanding that challenge is the first step to opening the door to communication – and a more efficient engagement.

Karl Jentzsch
Senior Analyst


Written by Karl Jentzsch at 05:00



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