We Need Both Experts And Novices

In Beau Lotto’s book, Deviate, he explains why experts need novices and novices need experts. In a story about how scientists discovered what makes a gecko able to climb any surface, he gets to the heart of innovation. Whether it’s in the hard sciences or designing a strategy to tackle a target at work, this is an important lesson about how people of different skill levels can work together.


Biologist Robert Full and his colleagues had been studying geckos and wondering how they were able to stick to nearly any surface for some time. They mostly had determined that it was microscopic hairs enabling this superpower, but they couldn’t figure out how to measure the hairs to properly show the math for why it would work. Full explained the problem to his undergraduate students. To his surprise, an ambitious sophomore showed up not long after and told him, “I measured it.” Amazingly, she really had.


Full knew the measurement problem wasn’t a problem for his doctoral or even his master’s students. They already knew too much. This problem was going to require raw, unencumbered ingenuity. As Lotto explains, experts have the advantage of knowing the rules and logic, while novices have the advantage of not being burdened by the same information. Novices are therefore more likely to stumble upon a novel solution than experts. Full used this knowledge to help answer his measurement question.


In an educational setting, having a group of experts leverage a group of novices is a particularly useful model to think about. Not only does it provide an excuse for collaboration across an entire organization, but it also does so with the expectation that the current novices will eventually become the future experts, and new novices will take their place.  In work and regular life, this collaborative approach combining a unified purpose with upward mobility is incredibly powerful and unifying. Without running a survey, we can safely bet that cultures of exploration and advancement trump those of tunnel vision and arbitrary ceilings. 


Whether we are in an educational or business setting, we have no shortage of difficult problems to solve. For the experts, whenever we find ourselves saying “I really don’t know how I’m going to make this happen,” we should go find a novice. We should do it with the intention of collaboration and graduating them up to a higher level. For the novices, whenever we say, “I really don’t know how to think about this,” we should go find an expert. We should seek experts who understand collaboration and advancement – like picking the right college to attend, we are making a choice based on maximizing our potential. 


People of all different skill levels can and should work together. Lotto’s lesson is that when we deviate from our assumptions in an intelligent and intentional way, new insights will open up to us. The opportunity to continuously evolve isn’t just too great to ignore, it’s also too interesting to ignore. Just think of what we can do next.