How to spot an expert.

The chap that sits next to me is pretty shrewd. “How do you spot an expert?” he said. The conversation lasted several days but he had known the answer all along. “Experts ask questions. They don’t give direct answers”.

Experts tend to have a model or framework of the domain for their understanding. They will ask questions to allign their model of understanding with the environment they find themselves in. They are adaptable so they will adopt the language of the environment for their model. They will ask questions to compare their domain model with the environment they find themselves in. They will be looking for subtle differences to help them learn new things rather than assume they are right. When they find differences they know that they could be due to an issue with environment or an issue with their model. They will not assume either is right, even if faced with an environment that appears to be undisciplined or uneducated. This constant search for flaws in their own way of thinking will mean that their knowledge will continue to deepen and be enriched.

A novice by comparison will have the answer. They will be rigid in their use of their own terminology, even though it causes confusion or misunderstanding. The novice may have many many years of exposure to the subject but it might be limited to academic study rather than practical experience, or it may be limited to a narrow range of experiences where they have imposed their own model on reality. Knowing that they are right will mean they will have missed many may opportunities to learn. Their knowledge will remain shallow and limited to the “language of the educated” rather than finding the language of the context. Sometimes the behaviour of the novice “Expert” resembles that of a teenager who has started the journey of learning and assumes certainty in their opinions. The novice will scoff at the un-initiated rather than support them and help them learn.

A novice may appear confident, like Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now! “Charlie don’t surf!”. A man who risks lives for his own amusement.

The expert is confident enough to appear humble, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption. “Do you trust your wife Sir?”. An expert in life who dug his way out of prison.

Novice may look like experts but following their advice may kill your project. An expert may seem unassuming but they may dig you out of a tight spot.

Take a look around you. Are people telling each other what to do, or are they asking each other questions?

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

15 responses to “How to spot an expert.

    • theitriskmanager

      Originally it had some questions at the end but they did not work. They were meant to funny but came across as naff so I deleted them. 🙂

      Besides, by not having questions I have clearly shown that I am a novice. A role I am happy with.

  • BrianSJ

    Jim Shanteau is the expert on experts. Wonderful man. has the same title as your post more or less. might be closer to what you are after though.

  • stefanhendriks

    Interesting, I do agree that experts will not always have ‘the answer’ laid down and will ask questions. But novices ask questions too, or complete ‘noobs’ will ask questions as well. Will that make them experts? How do you distinguish between the two?

    • theitriskmanager

      The noobs asking questions are potential experts. The equivalent to noob developers joining the software craftsmenship movement.

      Its the experience gained through practice that differentiates the expert from the noob.


      • stefanhendriks

        I believe the experience will make you more confident, I do agree that an expert will ask questions to validate his/her experiences with the proposed problems.

        In my experience others will become arrogant. I’ve met people who literally said they always write good code, without bugs. Don’t get me started about that. 🙂

        I believe asking questions is a very powerful thing. Validating is one thing, but you also learn a ton from it. I also believe experts can make novices learn by asking questions. Experts will not tell the answer (ideally), but rather ask the right questions that will make the novice lead to the answer itself.

  • Norbert Winklareth

    Starting with your most enjoyable post and the assertion that most of us are not psychic and therefore cannot know what is going on in the minds of others, experts or otherwise, I have some questions:

    1) How do we know that a person is transforming the answers to their questions into richer internal mental models and into richer models of the current situation?

    2) How do we judge that a person has created a rich approximation of the knowledge domain and of the situational context about which they are asking questions is therefore an expert, since the mere fact they are just asking many questions without telling us what to do or explaining the situation to us in ways that provides deeper insight, is in and of itself, not sufficient to allow us to make that judgement, especially if our own mental models are not as rich as needed to provide an accurate approximation of the current situation, so therefore we can judge if their questions are, in fact, allowing them to gain deeper insight into the current situation – you know, the difference between discovering deeper structure as opposed to being captivated by surface details?

    3) Or is it that you are in fact trying to point out that in reality there is no way to spot if anyone is an expert and as corollary a person who tells without asking is most certainly not an expert, even though it is possible that they have appraised the situation accurately through other data and are trying to quickly help the people who asked for help, since in their judgement the Socratic method does not meet the time needs of the current situation, or have I constructed mental models that completely and utterly misses your point or is my attempt at playing the Tertullianus card, Credo quia absurdum, and riffing on your reasoning, merely poor timing on my part?

    PS. If we should ever meet in person remind that I owe you a few beers.

    • theitriskmanager


      I agree. We cannot read minds. 🙂

      You make very good points. There are situations when the expert needs to act and direct rather than raise awareness using questions. I was thinking of the more general case where an “expert” simply tells others what to do without finding out the subtleties of the context.

      I like the sound of the beers.


      • Norbert Winklareth

        By the the phrase ‘more general case’ do you mean the 80% Pareto case? If not, then what do you mean by the phrase?

        Assuming your intention was to talk about the Pareto case, I have two further questions:
        1) As you did not explicitly state in your post that you were discussing the Pareto case, how does a reader determine that it was your intention to discuss it?
        2) If a reader assumes while reading the post that you are indeed discussing the Pareto case does this not indicate to them, using the logic of your post, that they still need to do work on developing the mindset of an expert?

        When you say, or more correctly my paraphrasing, ‘ask more questions’, is the strict literal interpretation too constraining on how you meant it?

        PS. Hmm, I think I need to add one more beer to the number I owe you.

  • theitriskmanager

    Hi Norbert

    By “more general case” I meant when the expert is not under critical time pressure and does have time to ask questions.

    I had no intention of raising Pareto. 🙂

    I get the impression “Expert Spotting” is something you have put some thought into. Care to share how you approach it?


    • Norbert Winklareth

      Hi Chris,

      I have not consciously thought a lot about the question. I have over the years read a bit about it. I just took what you wrote and twisted it around to see how it would bend because, at the moment, the issue intrigues me.

      I spot expertise like this (highly distilled form): high discernment of scope, content and essence; fluidity within the domain; high signal to noise ratio; convergence using predictive behavior (your questioning riff); only provides options.

      The most interesting question your post raises for me, is how does one recognizes expertise when one has relatively little expertise in the domain in which one is seeking help with? For me, that is done via the last point: people who have deep expertise always give options. Those who do not, either ramble or assert that such and such is the issue and you need therefore to do X. Since I answered my question with a singular response, i.e. no options, I am, by my definition, a person without deep expertise in this domain and therefore both my criteria for spotting and my ability to spot expertise is called into question, caveat lector.

      Imagine if you will, a postmodern fugue … and Chris my thanks to you

      • theitriskmanager


        You mention the P word. I agree that context is everything.

        The thing I find so interesting about “Finding Experts” is how people who are not experts are attracted to those with esoteric language and certainty and confidence that their single option is the one to pursue. The assumption that there is a best answer or a right answer for all contexts.

        I find the behaviour of “Experts” with a single answer to be interesting. I have experienced such individuals who make a point of ignoring people who are genuine experts. What is more, they want to prevent the discovery of new options. Perhaps its the uncertainty? Perhaps they don’t want to sound indecisive. “Charlie don’t surf,… except on the Weekends and occasionally on a Wednesday afternoon. What day is it?” does not carry the same punch.


  • Norbert Winklareth


    Assuming I understand which P word you are referring to, then I most certainly did not mention it, I intentionally used it, although only as part a non-sequitur phrase, that tried to invoke thoughts of the show ‘The Twilight Zone’. /:-)

    In my experience, most people at some point, have a strong desire for certainty; the Chinese had a curse based on it: May you live in times of great change. My supposition is that most people desire certainty much more then they are aware of and I think that this desire is the basis of their attraction to single answer experts and/or people who act with great certainty.

    Consider framing your thoughts about “Experts” as people who have tightly bound some understanding, i.e. their initial expertise and its associated status to their ego’s self-worth. I assert that this model explains the behaviour you have witnessed. Additionally, we also need to factor in, that it is not easy for anyone to realize how trapped they are by their own ego. Given this, I suppose that the next rational turning point is to then ask how does one make these people aware of this and when you turn the conversation this way you suddenly realizes that we have left the Lands of Gods, Demons and Mythology and have walked onto the hand of the Buddha, not there is anything wrong with that, but still! /:-)

    Context is the biggest stick, after Little’s Law of course.

  • Bill Wood

    Intereting theory, not sure it is supported by the research on expertise or practical examples. Nor does this theory have wide application. For example I do not believe it applies to professional sports.


    ANY “technician” can ask questions, but only experts can efficiently, effectively, and fully address the issues or problems those questions raise.


    If the theory is limited to knowledge based pursuits then there still seems to be a gap here.

    I would agree if you mean that an expert will ask enough questions to gain clarity to understand the problem or the issue involved. Once they have reached that level then they would apply their domain expertise to address that problem or issue. However, getting at the issue or problem is just one very small component of expertise–, how it is addressed is equally as important, and often more important.


    There was a lengthy study (over 50 pages) which did a thorough and fairly comprehensive evaluation of studies, literature, and research dating back as far as 1904 to the year of the publication in 2007.

    Ericsson, K., Roring, R., and Nandagopal, K. (2007); Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: an account based on the expert performance framework. High Ability Studies Vol. 18, No. 1, June 2007, pp. 3–56.

    I’ve written on this topic within the domain of SAP. However it has wide application and many companies are now beginning to recognize that there are too many self-proclaimed “experts” with crackpot theories or ideas who have not focused on domain expertise.

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