Bad Experts and how to avoid them

In one of her conferences, English economist Noreena Hertz tells of an experiment in which an MRI machine scanned the brains of a group of adults while they were listening to a group of experts talking. As they focused in on the experts’ voices, the decision-making parts of their brains stopped functioning. This is pretty extraordinary when you come to think of it, maybe even slightly worrying.

Do we really rely so blindly on experts and take their advice at face value? When you run your own business, you will have no choice but to work with specialists – IT developers, accountants, insurance brokers, legal advisors and the rest. If you are doing well, maybe even offshore tax consultants. Despite their heroic ability to take on the world, entrepreneurs and business leaders are like most other people – they can’t (or don’t have the time to) write software code themselves, draft their company’s standard terms of sale or study the latest changes in data privacy law. So how do you pick the right resources and avoid paying for bad experts?

Even if we can’t test their core skills ourselves, we can certainly assess their basic service values – such as timekeeping, flexibility about budget and pricing options. Good experts should also always be able to demonstrate honesty and openness and not hide behind professional qualifications. Does your lawyer ever admit that they made a mistake or overlooked a detail – or that they don’t immediately know the answer to your question? How well does your marketing expert take your criticism when you disagree with the promotional campaign they put together for you? Competent advisors should be able to think like their clients and understand the client business intimately. They should speak the client’s language and not expect you to speak theirs.

Most directors and senior executives know what they want from a good assistant: they want them to be good communicators, flexible, proactive, above all responsive and focused on problem-solving rather than problem-raising. Telepathy would be a bonus, of course. So why do we lower our expectations with experts and tend to just accept without questioning not just what they tell us but how they do it? When a doctor is making decisions about our health or a bank advisor is dictating the fate of our business, this is precisely when the decision-making region in our brains should be spiking, not flat-lining.