Everyone has plenty of them, and sadly, many of us are not afraid of sharing them regularly. Not only that, but they often have absolutely no relation with reality. Problematically, the more authoritative your position, the more significant their effect. Yes, I’m referring to opinions. Yet ultimately, what matters is expertise, not opinions.
According to the New Oxford Dictionary, an opinion is a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on facts or knowledge. For those trained in the pragmatic marketing methodology, you will remember rule #7 (one of my personal favorites): Your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.
One of the challenges with opinion-based decision-making is that it is biased by your level in the corporate hierarchy. A former CEO of Netscape puts it best: If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine. If you are not the CEO, you cannot win in the world of personal perspectives that are not fact-based (and even the CEO reports to a Board of Directors).
Ultimately it’s not your opinion that matters; it’s your expertise.
So what is expertise? The new Oxford American Dictionary has the following definition: It’s an expert skill or knowledge in a particular field. In other words, it’s the opinion of an expert – yeah, I know, this is getting meta here. But opinions are the easy part. The significant and complex part is building this expertise on insights and facts acquired over time and grounded on reality. An important difference to keep in mind: When you make a bold statement, you have the data and the facts to back it up if you are in expertise territory.
For instance, let’s look at airline pilots. In the USA, the license enabling you to be in the cockpit of a commercial aircraft requires a minimum of 1500 hours of flight time. In addition, pilots have multiple written exams and flight tests throughout their training career. Safety through expertise continues throughout a pilot career with regular medical exams, ongoing training, and flight tests. Where is up & down and how to move the throttle is not enough! A deep understanding of the weather, navigation, communication, advanced technologies onboard, and much more is crucial. Building the pilot expertise, the reflexes, and intuition needed in case of an emergency requires countless hours. It is an essential part of the safety and smooth operations of the global aviation system.
Expertise matters in every field. Nobody would expect a product manager to make things up as they go. Sadly when you look at some products, it sometimes feels like they did. Product Managers only provide value to a business when they bring a deep understanding of the customers, the markets, the technologies, and the process. Expertise is critical in sales and marketing, finance, development, legal, and everywhere else, up to the C-level.
How does one become an expert at something? The good news is that there is no magic involved. The bad news: it doesn’t happen suddenly. I previously wrote that it takes three to become a good product manager. In the first cycle, PMs go through the firehose effect, not knowing what’s going on and trying not to break anything. With the second iteration, PMs get to make new mistakes, and they start to build a level of pattern recognition. At the third (or more) launch, Product Managers can anticipate what needs to happen to launch your product successfully.
Forming this expertise takes time and requires asking many questions. This instinct, this intuition built after many loops, such as launching products, is trained by experience. The learning process accelerates when regularly using the following sentence structures:
- Start your sentences with, I wonder
- Another great starter is: I’m curious about
- Try phasing your comment with: Here’s a hypothesis for you
- One I might overuse, especially when I am also a user of the product: Let me give you a sample of 1
- And finally: Let’s figure out some data behind to validate or invalidate this
Expertise comes from the ability to say I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.
Expertise comes from a willingness to admit that you do not know and figure out the answers. So what about intuition? According to the Merriam and Webster Dictionary, intuition is the power or faculty of attaining direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference. In other words, intuition is based on expertise and experience and on a willingness to ask questions to learn.
We all know that 74.2% of people make their stats on the spot. Or was it 42.7%? A critical part of “opinions” is that we need to be open to validating statements, especially those without a reputable data source. Ask yourself: what is the source of that statement?
One made on the spot is an opinion (or worse). If you share information building on comments from someone else who is not an expert, who might have heard it from somebody else, it is also an opinion. You are in expertise territory when you share fact-based information from first-hand research and data analysis. Talking with an expert who has done the research and has data also gets you into expertise territory, as long as you don’t add your layer of “truth.”
One way of clarifying requires you to ask how many degrees are you away from Kevin? Let me illustrate this with a simple question for the movie fans: What is the link between the three different movies: JFK, Apollo 13, and X-Men First Class? If you know Kevin Bacon, you can ask the expert. And if you don’t know him, you can access IMDb. I am describing here the concept of 6 degrees of separation and the idea that you’re on average six or fewer social connections away from each other. But don’t forget that statements are amplified or distorted throughout the rounds of improvements as they pass from person to person. In other words, the further away you are from Kevin, the less reliable the information will be around his movie career.
The lean startup loop/methodology is a powerful way technology firms, especially startups, become experts at products that customers want. It starts with a hypothesis, an opinion that an idea will become a great product. To transform this opinion into expertise and a great product customers will love, you iterate as quickly as possible through a build-measure-learn loop. The lean startup methodology is a learning tool that minimizes time waste. It enables to team behind the product to become experts quickly or pivot towards another opinion to validate.
But be careful not to only focus on data. It gives us tunnel vision. Both quantitative and qualitative information is critical, and expertise is not about reciting numbers or data blindly. It’s about being able to understand and interpret the facts behind that data. It’s as much about the big picture as it is about the attention to detail. Expertise is about figuring out the truth behind all the facts and data sources you have. We’ve all read the famous quote from Henry Ford: “f I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Let’s not fall into the data-blindness trap.
As an expert, your ability to communicate the information is critical. Yet this is often an area that people ignore. Luckily, there are a few tips&tricks that will significantly improve your ability to transmit knowledge successfully:
- Take your time to share the basics.
- Don’t assume everybody knows as much as you.
- Don’t dive into the details too quickly.
- Keep your audience needs center.
- Explain concepts from their perspective.
And please, please, pretty please, do not use jargon and acronyms, it’ll go straight over your audience’s heads, and everyone will lose you right away.
Beyond expertise, you reach wisdom. According to the new Oxford American Dictionary, wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. Wisdom is this magical mix of expertise combined with intelligence. Wisdom is when you go beyond the expertise, when you’re putting facts together, and go beyond the sum of the individual pieces of information.
We should all strive to become wiser in our respective fields and open to others for their expertise.