Sunday, December 20, 2009

Adaptive Expertise

Tm sent me a couple of links yesterday that discuss leadership styles (which I'll ponder in another post) and those links led me to the discovery of two other posts on "Adaptive Expertise" by Mark Tozer. The posts "What is Adaptive Expertise" and "Developing Adaptive Exerptise" introduce the concept and review some of the current literature about it.
They excited me because they finally gave me a name for something I've noticed in talented people for a while.
A buddy of mine in college played guitar with a guy who was technically superior, but was doomed to be a back-up player. Despite his clear technical skills, this guy couldn't work the room. He could do a great job replicating Hendrix's "All along the Watch Tower" but it was always the same. My friend on the other hand could light up a room. He changed up the pace of the songs to fit the vibe of the room. He managed to work the drunks in a bar into the show.
I work with a some talented writers who are superior when writing on their "topic" and with their tools. Assign them to something outside their zone and they fall apart. I know writers who are great at writing programmers' guide but couldn't write a getting started guide to save their lives. Their books are always organized following the same patterns regardless of the presentation medium or the audience.
TM and I have often talked about kayakers who have gone off and chased training and became super skilled, but lacked sea sense. They know all of the tricks, have flawless rolls, and beautiful forward strokes. They can surf like gods, but when things get a little funky they cannot cope as well as they should based on skill levels. They know rescue procedures and follow them slavishly. We also know paddlers who despite a lack of formal training are spot on in crisis situations and make their skills fit the situation.
Some of this can be chalked up to experience, but the idea of adaptive expertise explains why some people are better at it than others. It explains why some people are craftsmen and others are artists. Adaptive expertise allows a person to adapt their skills and knowledge to new situations. Someone who falls back on rote procedure are not using adaptive expertise, but someone who fits their skills together in a new way to solve a new problem is using adaptive expertise.
Tozer's second post talks about someways of developing adaptive expertise. He talks about four conditions. Essentially one needs to be constantly exposed to novel situations, have a community that encourages learning and dialog, and freedom from time constraints. In other words you need to be willing to accept temporary failure and surround yourself with people who are willing to learn from each other.
Adaptive expertise, while valuable in all areas in life, is key to being a good kayaker. The ocean will throw all sorts of novel situations at you. No two groups are the same. You need to be flexible and adaptable to survive and thrive.

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