The Curse (and Necessity) of “Professionalism”

Tom Peters

I egged on the testy exchange, asking a friend, a former policeman, what he thought about LA’s Daryl Gates affair. While he certainly didn’t cheer the police beating of Rodney King, he defended Gates vigorously. The problem, he made clear (in a way intended to make me shrivel), was that I could never begin to comprehend what it’s like out on the mean streets, night after night.

He’s right, of course. Moreover, I am in awe of policemen who do have the gumption to patrol some very hot spots. And I appreciate the professionalism and restraint of the 99 percent who don’t go over the edge in the face of hostility and continual proximity of violence.

Nonetheless, as an uninitiated observer, I stick to my view that Gates created a climate where abhorrent behavior was too often the subject of benign neglect at best. More important to this discussion, I will not be cowed by an old pro’s (my friend’s) typical retort: “You just don’t understand.”

Expertise makes the world go round. But has its costs: A long-time colleague and I are incommunicado, and have been for a couple of years. As far as he’s concerned, I insulted him in public. I’ll admit he’s got a point.

He’s a senior staffer to the No.2 person in one of our 10 biggest companies. At a seminar some time back, he went on and on (and on) defending what I felt was an indefensible—i.e., patently stupid by my lights—action by his company. (As I see it, it’s one of those “if it looks like a turkey, walks like a turkey, squawks like a turkey, it must be a turkey” situations. His defense rested mainly on “information and context top management are privy to that others can’t grasp.” (“Others” obviously includes me, not to mention a few hundred thousand employees and several million customers.)

I told him that was a bunch of crap. (Actually, I said worse.) It’s the “naive” employees and “naive” customers and “naive” suppliers who know the score, I said, and if there are people who are truly naive, it’s his isolated top managers who think they’re the recipients of special, heaven-sent vibes—but who don’t have a clue about the man-on-the-street’s sensibility.

It wasn’t very pretty, and of course we both lost. Lost contact. Made public fools of ourselves. Resolved nothing.

“Doctor knows.” “There are engineering considerations you just can’t fathom.” “We’ve done, after all, $350,000 worth of market research. We know.” “Even an idiot could work this.” These are among the thousands of responses that “experts”/ “professionals” use to make clear to “outsiders” (line workers, “professionals” in other functions, customers, franchisees, reporters) that there are things laypersons aren’t meant to understand. So “leave it to us and go away.”

Don’t misinterpret me. I value “expertise” (and even hope I proffer a little from time to time). In a “knowledge-based economy,” as many call ours, expertise is more important than ever.

Which is precisely the point. Since expertise is so valuable, we need to learn:

– how expert the front line can become (very, it turns out);

– how genuine experts can better work with gifted amateurs (e.g., line workers, customers) to bring special knowledge to bear quickly in the marketplace;

– what can be learned from and accomplished by amateurs;

– and how to curb professionals/experts run amok.

At plants all over the United States, we are learning (not quickly enough) that front-line workers can do most routine (and many not-so-routine) accounting, engineering, and quality tasks. Some studies demonstrate that 90 percent of expert staff work can be handled by a well-trained, well-equipped, self-managed work team. Moreover, front liners are turning out to be the world’s best salespersons and vendor “managers,” when allowed to work directly with customers and suppliers at firms like printer Quad/Graphics and hose maker Titeflex.

If all that’s true, then the expert’s role becomes that of itinerant teacher, counselor, and consultant. Small expert staffs as I see it, can best be reconceived as “community colleges.” Their role becomes spreading knowledge fast to those who can use it, rather than constraining its diffusion to enhance their own status.

Beyond this, it’s essential to understand that almost all successful entrepreneurship (inside the firm as well as out) is gifted amateurism. Most entrepreneurial success ideas were considered, often scores of times, by big expert staffs at big corporations—but dismissed as naive, trivial, or just plain dumb. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki provides the key: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” That is, the entrepreneur’s naive passion, obtuse persistence—and luck—carry the day.

For the big cheese, I have a blunt message: If you ever catch one of your “experts” saying to one of your non-experts, “But you just don’t understand”—fire him or her on the spot. And if you catch a glimmer of yourself singing the same song, reach for the ripcord on your silver parachute.

All progress depends on expertise. All progress depends on amateurism. Hmmm.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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