The Problem with Category Expertise.

George Peabody Library, Baltimore.

One of the primary constraints to real change is expecting different results from those of us with ‘category expertise’. The truth is, most of us creative folks want diversity in what we do. We want expertise in many overlapping categories. That’s ambition. Staying close to a singular pursuit is limiting, if not underwhelming.

Even with a large amount of success, creative thinkers and problem solvers want variety in what they do.

Variety is refreshing; it’s exhilarating; it maintains a certain amount of doubt and fear in what we do. That keeps us motivated to learn, to try new approaches, and to work in a state of discomfort. That may sound unpleasant, but it’s all part of staying engaged in what we do.

So why do “buyers of expertise” often seek out experts with direct experience solving the exact business challenge at hand? Sure, category expertise might be a safe bet in reaching (and maybe exceeding) a certain level of expectation, but does it help us redefine our work? Challenge the status quo? Break out of the paradigms we all complain about?

Problem solving exclusively based on past experience rarely leads to wholesale change. As an example, placing sports marketers in the room with a sports marketing agency, in isolation, may solve the business problem at hand, but will it drive extraordinary change? Not likely. Even experts need to look outside of themselves to understand the issues and create substantial solutions. In this case, they need to truly understand the fan, including how they find, consume, and share what they care about. They need to understand the range of fan engagement — from novice to obsessive. And that is simply not a constant.

While we can’t discredit the ‘people’ part of what we do, we also need to consider the ‘process’ part. Process means having the tools that help us uncover the true opportunities for our clients. Process means having the discipline to conduct the right amount of research, rather than assuming we completely understand the business, the challenge, and the end user. Process means throwing out the notion that we are the experts and, instead, being completely open to gaining a new understanding of the world in which we live.

This is important because expertise has an expiration date.

As the world evolves around us, we need to be cognizant that the way we solved the problem last time may not have the same impact next time.

True expertise is knowing that our own expertise is a distraction.

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