Can too many experts hurt your venture? Experts say ‘yes’

Published on the 14/12/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Stanford_too many experts

You may think stacking your business-deck with brains is crucial to innovate, but new research indicates the opposite may be true…

That’s right. Too many experts on the team can, in fact, hinder innovation.

According to a study from Stanford University, Is There a Doctor in the House? Expert Product Users, Organisational Roles, and Innovation, trained experts increase the chances of success for ventures, but only up to a point. When too many are on board, failure rates increase.

Tracking the impact of professional end-users of a product as inventors, executives, and board members in a young organisation, the study examined 231 surgical instrument ventures over a 25-year period. That study found that having too many doctors on the team – especially in executive roles – blocked innovation.

“[D]espite the promise of user input,” reads the report, “as experts, professional users may particularly have trouble accepting ideas outside their immediate expertise and, as executives, may only have bandwidth to pay attention to a narrow range of user input, thus making selection of ideas too narrow and future investments in innovation too redundant and path-dependent to bring in new knowledge.”

“As a result, users may blind firms from pursuing emerging market opportunities”.

The study – carried out by Riitta Katila, Sruthi Thatchenkery, Michael Christensen and Stefanos Zenios – found that although expert users were valuable in refining existing products, they showed far less aptitude recognising breakthrough innovations, based on the rate at which their products received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Simply put, professional users may struggle to put aside “entrenched problem-solving patterns” when trying to create something new.

Or, as Peter Diamandis (who had nothing to do with the study) distils it, “Companies have too many experts who block innovation. True innovation really comes from perpendicular thinking.” Diamandis is an engineer, futurist and co-founder (with Ray Kurzweil) of Singularity University.

Back to the study: “To make decisions, experts have a tendency to rely upon background expertise, i.e. ‘knowledge structures’ and shortcuts they have developed through prior experiences,” it said.

“While it can expedite decision-making, such expertise can also prove limiting as entrenched knowledge structures have trouble accommodating new or changed pieces of information. Such negative influences particularly block innovation when firms narrowly pay attention to the wishes of their ‘best’ user-customers and in the process become blind to new and different opportunities.”

The study also showed that when it comes to board roles specifically, too many experts produces diminishing returns, as board members battle for dominance of the group.

“Our interviews [suggest] that having high numbers of users on a board dilutes the perceived importance of any one user’s expertise and can lead to disruptive status conflict,” said the report.

“A senior partner at a health care consultancy firm explained that high numbers of physicians on a board often led to jockeying for position as the board’s ‘ultimate’ medical authority, which severely distracted from the actual purpose of the board meeting. Thus, ventures with too many user-directors may find themselves with undisciplined boards that are less able to put forth new ideas for innovation and less effectively monitor the firm and guide innovation, ultimately leading to costs of user involvement to exceed its benefits.”

So what’s a disruption-hungry company to do? Abandon the experts entirely? Not quite. It’s all about placing the right people in the right roles propose the researchers.

“In general, users should be involved in moderation, together with non-users, and avoid taking the chief executive officer position,” said the report.

“Too many doctors – or doctors who become CEOs – can slow innovation down. More broadly, our findings suggest a new ‘lever’ for innovation: careful selection of tasks assigned to an organisational role can help maintain organisation’s ‘creative edge’, and, perhaps also more fully exploit each individual’s potential.”

Applied to the tech industry, the upshot is fascinating. Think of all the start-up and early phase companies which stack their boards with top names; while they make for good headlines and solid profile, the names could limit, rather than accelerate, innovation. Worth a ponder.

Read the full report here.

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