Manageable Guides

Expert views on topics relevant to all leaders and teams.

Roger Kneebone is an author and Imperial College professor who directs its Centre for Engagement and Simulation Science. He researches what experts from different fields can learn from one another. His first career was as a surgeon. He then changed direction twice: he became a GP and then an academic.

Hello, I'm Roger Kneebone, I'm a Professor of Surgical Education and Engagement Science at Imperial College London. I'm also the author of a book called Expert: Understanding the Path to Mastery. In this book, I explore the pathway that people go along when they become Experts. I think that becoming expert is a process that takes a very long time, it takes a lot of commitment and a lot of determination to do it. It's a process, it's a pathway towards becoming better and better at something that you've committed to do. And for for managers, particularly, it involves developing a series of skills and undergoing a series of experiences that allow you to get to the point where you have the wisdom, as well as the knowledge and skill to shape not only what you do, but the work of the other people who work with you and your team or your colleagues, or the people you interact with. I think all of us are on that path somewhere to becoming an expert. You have downs as well as ups, moments when you seem to be going backwards rather than going forwards. But if you look at the pathway as a whole, and it's something that takes many, many years, you see that overall it goes onwards and upwards towards a destination of becoming more and more expert. I'm Roger Kneebone and this is my Manageable Guide to becoming Expert.

The path to mastery starts by what I've called in my book “doing time”, where you have to just spend a lot of time doing stuff that allows you to lay the groundwork that you're going to rely on later. It's an interesting stage, because at the time when you're going through it, it often seems pretty boring, you rather wish you could short circuit it. Although the details of those will vary between one kind of work and another kind of work, the principle of having to spend a lot of time being immersed in something and gradually becoming familiar with its ways and learning how to fit in, I think is a constant. It's not just working with physical things, it's working with other people, it's, it's negotiating how you move around one another in a space, it's making sure that you can establish relationships with people, that you can work out where you sit in the system of things and how you can contribute what you can do, what you can't do. It's an internal process of development that goes alongside and underpins the acquisition of specific skills and specific kinds of expert practice. It particularly involves getting things wrong, and learning to put them right, and encountering a whole lot of unexpected things that are going to happen to everybody, but they don't happen at a predictable time.

But I think it's important too, for managers and leaders to recognise the process that newcomers are going through and the fact that they do need the time and the support to go through those experiences that will lead after a few years to them being able to go into that next stage, that stage of independence. That, I think means that leaders and managers need to have that all round sense of what are the needs of the people they're working with. The journeyman stage is that transition from being under somebody else's tutelage, doing things as they are done in somebody else's setting to coming into to gaining the independence of going out into the world. I think as you go through that journeyman stage, you have the opportunity to have a richer set of experiences, often with more serious consequences than you do at the apprenticeship stage because you're taking responsibility for the things that you do. I guess in the context of managers and leaders, perhaps that’s working with different clients with different environments, learning to deal with the unexpected.

And of course, one of the implications of that is that you will inevitably make mistakes and you will do things that looking back you you wish you'd done differently or whatever, but that is just part of life. I think that in that, in that journeyman stage, you are building up a sort of bedrock of experience that you will continue to draw on over the rest of your career with the rest of your pathway on this journey towards mastery. The more people I talked to when I was writing this book, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that improvisation is a key element of becoming an expert. I imagined that, that were leaders of all kinds, but particularly in management will be having to do that all the time in dealing with unexpected situations or difficulties with clients. It is something you can only do, if you've gone through these earlier stages of spending years learning how to do stuff so that you can you can pull those skills into play without even having to think about it. I think one of the problems with increasing levels of risk aversion is that people can get quite a long way along their professional path without actually having experienced what it actually feels like to be in high risk situation, and particularly won't have the experience to recognise when things are on the verge of going wrong.

I think a lot of that, a lot of how you bounce back after making a mistake depends on the environment that you're in and the support that you get from other people, which I think is another crucial role of leaders. It is to recognise when people have made mistakes, as they inevitably will, and and look after them when that happens. In the mastery stage, I think it's shifting your attentional focus to the people who are following you along that path that you're treading, but you also have a responsibility to guide how they're progressing, and to think about whether they're going in the best possible direction to think what you can do to support them. It's the stage when you're becoming wise, when you're gaining wisdom. I think this idea of wisdom is really important because it's one of the things that characterises experts I think, and distinguishes them from people who have lots of skill or who have elements of expertise. The more expert they are, very often the more modest they are, and the less comfortable they are with describing themselves as expert, because the more aware they are of how far they still have to go.

I talked to Andrew Davidson, who's been a wood engraver, very distinguished, engraving for more than 40 years. He started engraving blocks and then printing, printing engravings on paper from those blokes. I know there is no such thing as a perfect print, but I'll never stop trying to make one as well. However, I think there are external pressures trying to squeeze that process. That's a big problem because these processes that I've talked about take a long time, and you have to go through these things that you can't predict. We have to understand that if we're to be able to make judgments about people who purport to be expert, because other people say they're expert, and they're not. When we're making judgments about who to collaborate with or to work with or whose judgement to trust, then we need to have criteria really. With entrepreneurs, for example, they may take things in really important new directions. But that's not the same as being expert because I argue that being expert requires you to have gone through these stages, these stages of internal development, that take time. But as a senior leader, or somebody who's in a much more responsible position, I think that mastery stage allows you to bring all your own experiences together with the evidence that you're gathering from the situation more widely all around you, and make sensible choices.

Recognise that you need to improvise, recognise that you're going to make mistakes, even if things seem to be going fine. It's important not to think that the job is done, but to realise that you're still on that pathway towards becoming as good as you can possibly be in what you've chosen to do, and that involves change. It makes a lot of sense then to seek out opportunities to develop new ways of thinking, new skills, new people to work with new challenges, and to keep that sort of internal sense of there being a progression rather than staying still. I think leaders and managers have a huge opportunity here to create an environment that invites and encourages everybody in their group to see their work in that way too. It invites people to see even the bits that seemed repetitive and boring as contributing to a growing set of skills and a growing capacity to find your work even more interesting and more satisfying as you become more experienced. I'm Roger Kneebone and this is my Manageable Guide to becoming expert.