Are you an expert or an innovator? The difference can transform your career.
Who are you in your career? And — more importantly — where are you going?
Would it surprise you to learn that most career paths are fixed? And that, to create any sort of change, you might need to cultivate entirely different skillsets than the ones usually prescribed?
It doesn’t matter if you are a professor, architect, manager, nurse, engineer, marketer, or computer programmer: the path you were set on in school is linear. You go from apprentice to expert through an established timeline.
Becoming an expert at what you do is a very worthwhile goal. The bad news is that there are probably a lot of experts in your field already.
But what if you could change the rules of the game?
The noteworthy difference between experts and innovators
- An expert has comprehensive knowledge and advanced technical skill. They can solve problems quickly because they’ve seen them before. Their knowledge is authoritative.
- Clients are willing to pay for an expert’s services to gain competence, efficiency, and a quality end result.
- Experts save the client money because they don’t make the mistakes that novices often do. (Typically, because they learned from their own mistakes early in their careers or suffered through the mistakes of others.)
When a client hires an expert, they have a defined what, where, when and how. The deep technical expertise of the expert delivers it.
- An innovator is someone who introduces new methods, ideas, or products. They go deep into problems to find what hasn’t yet been explored. Their knowledge is incomplete and their thinking is, by necessity, divergent.
- Clients pay a premium for an innovator because they produce exponential results. People use words like creative, pioneering, groundbreaking, or game-changing to describe their work.
- Innovators thrive on solving the problems in the marketplace that no one else has solved.
When a client hires an innovator, they only define the what. It is up to the innovator to discover the how. (The where and when become malleable.)
How experts switch trajectory to become innovators
Years ago, I participated in a rapid prototyping design workshop at the global design and innovation company, Ideo, at their headquarters in Palo Alto. The breakthrough learning for me came when the group leader pointed out that to gain real value from user surveys — a fundamental part of their design process — we needed to intentionally seek input from the wild outliers.
You see, it’s easy to gather mainstream thought. It’s harder to gather influences from the people with such different viewpoints that we would be forced to consider them.
So what does this have to do with you and your path?
Regardless of your field, there is a prescribed career path that will take you from apprentice to expert across a span of about 20 years. As you perform the work and study to increase your knowledge, you will move predictably from point A to point B — and there’s nothing wrong with this. The world needs experts.
But if the thought of traveling this well-worn, more predictable trail doesn’t excite you, I have good news. There’s a different path that isn’t frequently talked about.
You can survive as a solo act as an expert, but becoming an innovator requires the ability to bring together people who have different experiences with the same problem to extract and distill this knowledge from the group. Innovators create a synthesis of different perspectives, uncovering pieces of the problem that more limited perspectives can be blind to in order to unleash a broader range of solutions. In other words, it thrives on being able to identify and pull in the outliers.
But this isn’t training anyone can hand you on a normal career path — especially if you work in a field that has historically been hierarchal. You will have to create your own curriculum to develop your new expertise. Lessons include:
- Apophenia — the ability to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. (Note that apophenia is a two-edged sword. It can fuel true innovation or make you believe in conspiracy theories.)
- Emotional intelligence — The ability to defuse conflict, empathize with others, and understand and manage your own emotions.
- Tolerance for a messy process — Innovation is never a straight line. There will be false starts and things you try that just don’t work. (Hey, if it were easy, innovation would happen all the time!)
The course of study for these skills will not magically appear before you. You will have to search for them. You will also need to shift your mindset, so you are open to, seeking out, and intentionally absorbing the small lessons that, in aggregate, broaden you. This is about learning to think differently, which will require you to read books and articles from authors outside of your field, put yourself in group situations that will stretch you, and seek non-traditional outlier mentors.
The curious training gym for developing yourself into an innovation ninja
The best place I’ve practiced the skills of apophenia, emotional intelligence, and tolerance for a messy process is improvisational theatre, a form of live theatre where everything — plot, characters, dialogue, scene, and story — are created in the moment.
If you find the idea of getting on a stage, in front of a room of other people, with no idea of what is going to happen next to be terrifying, you’re in very good company. But the thing about improv is that what appears made up in the moment is based on rules and methods that develop expertise. (Much like your own professional expertise.)
For example, one rule of improv is that you never say “no” to your scene partners. “No” shuts a scene down, there is nowhere else to go. The better answer is “yes, and…” This keeps the scene going, sparks creativity, and gives your partners something to build on.
Creating something together live on stage based in the rules of improv gives you the same kind of practice you need to draw insights from a diverse group of people so that you can get the best and brightest ideas on the table.
Even just taking a single improv class can expand your capacity for collaboration.
Why? Because presenting information and creating engagement are different skillsets. Improv training helps you build your muscles for pulling insights from groups.
But you can’t study a book to learn improv. (That said, Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation is one of the best business books I’ve ever read.) There is no substitute for practicing working in teams. You just have to get up there and do it to build the skills you’ll need to move from expert to innovator.
The cost that stops most experts dead in their tracks
If all you have to do to get from expert to innovator is acquire the ability to draw insights from a group and draw in the outliers, then why doesn’t everyone do it?
Here’s the thing: there is a high cost to pay.
Remember when you first learned how to drive a car? It was incredibly slow. You had to think about every little thing. Seatbelt. Mirrors. Hands at 10 and 2. Speed limits. Unfamiliar roads. When to brake and when to hit the gas. It required a ton of mental energy.
But now? Well, if you’ve been driving for a while, now it is automatic.
When the apprentice is developing a skill, their work is incredibly inefficient. But over time, as they develop expertise, everything accelerates. The efficiency of a true expert is beautiful.
Experts enjoy the rewards of this efficiency. (And so do clients.)
But the path to innovation can be ridiculously inefficient. Any time you collaborate with a lot of people to find a solution to an ill-defined problem, there is a cost. There are false starts and failures. Bunny trails and data gathering. It takes a lot of mental, physical, and social energy to go through a process that looks like it’s going nowhere.
Until it does.
It can be bitterly painful — and often impossible — for an expert to give up their hard-won efficiency to get to a place of innovation. In fact, most stop in their tracks before ever pursuing it. Why? Because there is a personal satisfaction to being the one who can do it all. Often an expert derives their identity from their ability to produce and save the day. (I know this because I’ve lived it. It took a deliberate choice to change my trajectory.)
Innovators are willing to pay the inefficiency costs. They know that the highest value isn’t in their own ability to produce, but that the highest value lies in the interaction of the group and the outlier results.
The stupid shortcut that causes people who want to be innovators to fail.
As critical as the soft skills are, you can’t just develop facilitation skills and skip developing your technical expertise. Technical expertise is your ticket to be able to play. The soft skills are what get you to the next level.
Without strong technical skills in your chosen field, you just become a “hand-waver;” someone playing the role of expert without the foundation needed to back it up.
You have to have mastery of the rules before you can creatively break them in pursuit of innovation.
And — more importantly — your client needs to know you have the requisite expertise so they can trust you to pursue innovation on their behalf.
Pursuing innovation makes you the expert of experts (and produces dividends for yourself and the client.)
Making the sweat-equity investment of becoming an innovator can have remarkable payoffs. For one thing, the skill of drawing insights from groups of people is rare — and it produces incredible results.
It also puts you at the center of the innovation, which increases your value and your impact — and gives you a great deal of autonomy.
But here’s the thing: this is not a path anyone will invite you to, because no two innovators share the exact same trail.
You will have to create your own. The only question left is: are you ready to begin?