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The conversion of experts

September 4, 2009

I cannot help but be attracted to experts: actuaries, biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists, software architects, fashion designers. I love them all: the nerdier, the better. First, there’s the sheer joy of discovering their vocation and talent. These guys love their jobs and they’re good at it. Have you ever observed a designer free-hand a sketch just because he’s bored at a corporate meeting? Or a statistician looking at a plot slowly taking shape on a computer screen? This is the wonder of business creation. Second, there’s the pleasure of the anthropological discovery of species that are new to me. Not everybody gets to interact with an actuary in his natural habitat inside a large insurance company tower.

My real purpose, though, lies in exposing them to the world. For I don’t simply want to observe them in their corporate quarters. I want the walls around them to come tumbling down, revealing to the world how great minds manufacture hits in their studio. I want to make their labs into remote stages and get them to become inadvertent stars in live public performances.

At the beginning, they look at me funny. Actually, some of them don’t even look at me, like actuaries (the introverted actuary looks at his shoes, the extroverted one looks at the other guy’s shoes, as the joke has it). “You wanna do what? Take me to some agents and customers? Do you actually understand what actuarial science is? It’s about numbers, dude. Nothing to do with customers.”

The trick is to get them to explain what they do in layman’s terms, so that ordinary people can understand their craft and connect it to their experience. The whole idea is to blur the line between what they do and what the customer does, since the goal is co-creation. Of course, I’m the first test case. Most of the time, I don’t have a clue, which makes me the perfect foil for the “tell me how you cook” line of questioning. I’ve discovered the perfect word to use with experts is “vulgarize.” This puts them at ease, granting them the respect they deserve while allowing some slight sense of condescension toward lesser educated beings.

The trick for experts is to let go, to move from bottler of science to broker of knowledge. It’s not easy to let go. The lab is more comfortable than the cold stare and acerbic questioning of customers. At the first workshops, they want to lecture, preferably using equations or molecular representations. I try to get them to pause and think through: “if a customer were there listening to you, what questions would you like to ask him?” They look baffled and annoyed, then slowly start formulating questions. From one workshop to the next, some of them get really good at it. A Franco-German chemist recently developed such a wonderful story that he could get farmers on four continents engaged in co-designing the formulation of the next product with him as if they were PhD chemists themselves.

The best moments come in the bus or the plane on the way back from those workshops, often in remote parts of the world. Occasionally, one of those experts comes to me and says: “I have changed the way I think of my job.” And just like that, it all becomes worthwhile.

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