January 2022 President’s Message: So, You Call Yourself an Expert

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January 5, 2022

One of the great things about working in a relatively defined field like building enclosure consulting is the increasing sense of knowledge and understanding that many of us feel as we get deeper into our careers. Some of us are fortunate to learn from recurring problems and projects, ones that continually reinforce and build our technical opinions but occasionally teach us something brand new. Others of us are thrown into a new situation every day, possibly having to start from first principles to build an understanding.

Either way, this sequence of exposures, whether predictable or not, eventually leads to the development of a greater and well- founded perspective that lets us better understand tomorrow’s problems. In both cases, we are building expertise. In fact, the real experts among us are not just gaining experience and knowledge daily. They regularly test their expertise through deliberate practice, whereby they intentionally push the limits of their expertise beyond their comfort zone.

So, let’s say you consider yourself an expert and you are admiring the expertise shown in the design you have just completed for a client. Out of the blue, you learn that another consultant, one whom you respect greatly and who shares some of your technical background, has been asked to review your design document. The project, while important to your client, seems well within your design capabilities, but this colleague emails you to advise, in no uncertain terms, that the solution you have chosen is unsuitable for the local climate and will fail within a few years. You check the name of the sender and the reference project, looking for the error that would explain this incongruity. You look closely through the comments to reconsider the perspective of the critic.

But, no, there is no quick resolution; this colleague has a vastly different opinion of the design—an opinion that would rock your technical foundation if you did not feel so factually grounded on the matter.

So, what do you do? Do you pick the lump out and set it aside, or maybe feed it to the dog? Ignoring the conflicting opinion allows you to carry on down your path, but this probably won’t sit well in the long run because you still haven’t come to an understanding of whether this respected colleague might have a point. You know this colleague’s opinions have merit, and you rightly don’t want to dismiss them.

The only lasting, satisfying resolution is to identify the specific differences of opinion, or of stated fact or experience, that lead to these opposing views. So you roll up your sleeves and start to break down your colleague’s reasoning, comparing it with your own. How certain are you of your arguments? Can you see weaknesses in your assumptions or your colleague’s? How much experience do you have with each disputed issue compared with them? Which of you is more “in their element” with this design problem? Does one of you have an unconscious bias that clouds objectivity on the issue?

When you are able to get down to why your opinions differ and where the weight of understanding and experience actually lie, you might come to a surprising conclusion—your colleague may be more knowledgeable and more experienced in some of the areas of conflict. Some elements of your design decisions might need to be changed, and those changes could change other downstream design decisions. As Alanis Morissette sang, “This could get messy.”

If you’re an expert, you will probably call your colleague to discuss the issues, and will welcome any changes. By going outside your comfort zone and unlearning and relearning a thing or two that someone else understands differently and better, you will have pushed your level of expertise further.

Active participation in IIBEC is a great way to compare technical notes with your colleagues, develop joint understanding, and improve your expertise. When you inevitably get that disturbing project critique, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with it effectively. And if you’re not getting any critiques, you’ll know where to seek them out!