Expertise vs innovation

It is possible to see anything either in terms of what one already comprehends about it or in terms of what resists comprehension. It is all a matter of emphasis and de-emphasis, and consequent pursuit and neglect of various aspects of the problem.


If we focus on the comprehensible aspects of a problem — which means to emphasize as relevant that which is readily understandable and to ignore as irrelevant that which defies understanding — we are able perceive that problem as the recurrence of a familiar problem, a problem we recognize as like one we have confronted before, and have resolved before with a repertoire of tools and techniques.

However, this reduction to familiar recurring concepts and familiar practices tends to produce results that are also recurrences of things we’ve already seen.


Expertise has real advantages:

  1. Foreseeability: the outcome of the expert’s method can be shown ahead of time because the both the process and the outcome are reproductions of earlier processes and outcomes.
  2. Efficiency: The process is is composed of steps toward a goal, all of which have been refined and mastered.
  3. Sureness: Experts execute processes with assuredness, because the problematic elements of the process have been worked out, which is reassuring to people who are made anxious by the unknown.

However, these advantages do come at a cost.

To the degree expertise is “leveraged” (as experts like to put it), the outcome will be like one someone else has already achieved.

In other words, if expertise is applied in every step of a process, innovation will not occur.

But a process with no expertise will result in pure chaos.

Innovation requires judicious use of anti-expertise.


Innovation is making something new and unprecedented.

An expertise in innovation will not be expertise in the normal sense.

“Expertise” in innovation involves the following skills, which are the mirror opposite of conventional expertise:

  1. Intuitability (or “Possibilability”): The goal of innovation is to discover-create something unprecedented. What is pursued is a possibility that can barely be imagined, but is intuited in a characteristically unnervingly vague way. And the pursuit moves along unmarked paths guided largely by intuition. Anyone who needs a picture of where they’re going before they’ll consent to going cannot go to undiscovered places and be a pioneer. They’ll have to settle for being a settler.
  2. Resourcefulness: Where expert the expert sees “the tried and true” best practices, the innovator sees the “tired and true”. An innovator seeks the untried new. Different ends demand different means, and so the best practice for innovation is: Wherever one aspires to innovate, avoid all best practices. It helps to know the best practices, so one can navigate around them and avoid shipwreck on some safe harbor.
  3. Faith: Innovation requires high spirits, energy and optimism in the face of complete absence of concrete evidence that everything will work out. Such conditions always create anxiety, which is normal, healthy and unavoidable. In fact, anxiety is one of the most reliable signs innovation is happening. But an innovator must resist sliding into despair, which attacks the imagination and will. Recognizing anxiety and its effects and learning to not only tolerate it, but to embrace it and use it is the single most important skill of an innovator.


An expert has his swagger of having already seen it all. His confidence rests on his belief that he already knows what is going on, and that he already knows how to respond to the situation.

An innovator has his swagger of knowing that there are always other ways to know. He knows from experience that he can hold his shit together in the face of the unexpected, and that he can even hold other people’s shit together for them when they lose it. He doesn’t need to already know, and doesn’t want to. Let the experts toil redundantly.


One more comment: Ingenuity and talent don’t automatically produce innovation. If the most talented artist works according to the understandings and methods of his fellow artists, he will produce more refined versions of the kind of art people have learned to expect. (Picasso said “I do it first, others do it pretty.”) If an ingenious engineer follows standard engineering processes, he will solve the problems he is given to solve, and those are invariably problems of degree: more of this, less of that.

It is only when a practitioner turns his attention to his practice and begins to question the how and why of his work that innovation deepens from expected quantitative progress to unexpected qualitative shifts that change how people perceive and live.


It is important to note, however, that a little bit of innovation goes a long, long way.

In 99+% of what we do, expertise is the only sensible course of action. But in those rare cases where we need the anti-expertise of innovation, we really need it.

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