Leaders and Inside Expertise

Organizations plan. Especially in the last several decades as information technology globalization, and other factors have changed the nature of economic, political, and cultural interaction; leaders have sought to engage members in the work of reinventing what they do and how they do it. In some cases, these efforts are successful; in other cases, they are not. The reasons for the successes and failures are many, but—in this post—I focus on only one: the alienation of the experts within the organization.

The way innovations are introduced to schools is familiar:

A leader (the title of this leader varies), decides, “educators are going to start using [replace this with any “innovation” that has captured the leader’s attention], as this will improve [replace this with any change a leader might want to make.]

Leaders (for political purposes and to sustain their egos) hold themselves to be the gatekeepers of the innovation they have “discovered,” so they initiate the next step in the implementation of the innovation:

Following this announcement, outsiders (who are likely very well paid) are retained to plan how the innovation will be rolled out. Invariably, the plans include training for teachers and this training introduces models and recipes that educators can follow to implement the innovation. In selecting the outside experts, thus the practices the leader expects to see as the innovation is implemented.

In that selection, the leader is ignoring existing expertise with the innovation held by members of the organization. Of course, it may be possible the leader is the first person to become aware of the innovation in the organization, but that is very unlikely. Especially in the world dominated by social media, educators are going to be aware of, probably exploring, experimenting with, or even a true adopter or expert in any innovation.

Even if the leader is aware of the existing expertise, they are unlikely to view it as a resource. This is perhaps understandable. Accepting inside expertise reduces the leader’s role as gatekeeper and others gain political capital. Also, accepting inside expertise can be perceived as giving those with the expertise preferential treatment. “Why,” others ask, “are you promoting what they are doing, but not what I am doing?”

The result is everyone is expected to participate in the training and follow the models introduced by outside experts reliably. For those who have already adopted the innovation, this will be a step backwards from their current practice. These models are scaffolds, intended to give structure until the innovation is internalized and the models are no longer needed.

The problem for leaders who seek to encourage innovative practices is that they will alienate some members of the organization no matter how they proceed. The experienced innovators will be alienated because their expertise is not valued (and the leaders are even willing to pay outsiders to bring the expertise into the organization). If an insider’s expertise is held up as “what we should all be doing,” then those who practice is not selected are alienated.

So, just what is a leader to do?

First, be familiar with the expertise in your organization. A colleague and I were once talking to a superintendent at a conference; he was interested in bringing differentiated instruction (or maybe it was some other practices, my memory is faulty) into his district. We said, “oh, you have to connect with Suzy (again, I don’t remember her name), she has been doing differentiated instruction with great success.” When we found Suzy, we introduced her to the superintendent of the school where she worked; he had no idea a region expert was working in his school.  Don’t be that superintendent.

Second, identify your vision and recognize those innovations that are aligned with your vision. If you articulate how one member’s practice aligns with that vision, then you are less likely to alienate those who have not adopted it. If this is too uncomfortable, leaders can at least avoid alienating existing experts by not ignoring them. Recognize their expertise, integrate it as you can. You are going to need these individuals as they will sustain the work after the outside experts are gone.