Reigning in Subject-Matter Expertise to Improve Work

One of the things I like to do over the holidays is grow existing or develop new subject-matter expertise which helps me improve my contributions to business meetings and facilitated collaboration. In other words, the holidays are a great time for me to catch up on my ‘fun’ business reading! This got me thinking about the role of subject-matter expertise in collaboration. My thesis was that being an expert on a subject was a barrier to creativity and innovation on the subject. What I discovered, as with many things, is it depends. If you are an expert of an adjacent field to the subject, then you can bring a fresh perspective that can trigger valuable new ideas. However, in order to do this, you need a base level of understanding of the subject. If you are an expert on the subject, then you need to be open to the ideas of those outside of the field in order to entertain new thinking which will lead to new ideas and innovation.

This post examines three ways to improve the results of collaboration. The first looks at the importance of optics or perception from people outside your knowledge domain to trigger new thinking. The second looks at the importance of disciplinary literacy when the topic of collaboration is outside your subject-matter expertise. The third looks at the critical role of creative confidence for members of the collaboration. Paying attention to optics, disciplinary literacy, and creative confidence will insure the collaboration leads to valuable results and transform your meeting experience.

Let’s first consider the importance of perspective from outside the knowledge domain of the collaboration to trigger new thinking. In order to create new developments and actions for a given subject, the subject needs to be seen from different perspectives. Cognitive psychologist Steven Smith of Texas A & M University told ‘Forbes’ magazine ( that ‘creative ideas often come from unusual combinations.’ One way to generate unusual combinations is to put experts from unrelated fields together. In ‘Understanding How to Frame Your Creative Expertise,’ Tara Mohr describes four types of experts ( Tara describes one type, the specialist, as one who has any combination of formal degrees, work experience, and research experience in their area of their expertise. Tara goes on to say that a primary downside for a specialist is that they tend to think ‘inside the box’ of their expertise. Tara also describes a different type of expert called a cross-trainer. The cross-trainer has deep expertise in one field and brings ways of thinking from that field to bear on other fields. Tara says that by making these interdisciplinary connections, the cross-trainer drives innovation. However, a downside to the cross-trainer is they might not see how their field really is not applicable to the new field. From these descriptions, a mix of experts who are open to listening to the perspectives of others and cross-trainers who are also open to listening to the input of others in an environment that promotes creativity can produce new and valuable thinking on a topic. This is remniscient of how in the creative problem solving methodology (, a mix of explorers (those who find boundaries and structure limiting and tend to think outside the box) and improvers (those who are more task and results focused and find structure and boundaries helpful) is used to create breakthrough thinking in brainstorming. Similarly, a mix of experts on the topic and non-experts on the topic can lead to breakthrough thinking.

The value of experts outside the collaboration topic begs the question of how to determine what perspectives to include in the collaboration. In ‘For the Most Creative Ideas Look Outside Your Industry,’ (, Rebecca Borison sites a group of European business school professors who wrote in Harvard Business Review: ‘We’ve found that there’s great power in bringing together people who work in fields that are different from one another yet that are analogous on a deep structural level. Such as makeup and surgical infections, surprisingly. Or inventory management and robot games. Or malls and mines.’ The process recommended here is to first work to get to the essence or core of the collaboration topic. Strive to capture the essence of the topic in a simple phrase that can be understood by a wide range of people – think about the one thing you would want people to remember about the topic. Next review an extensive list of markets and test for any forced connections that can be made between the essence of the problem and the market knowledge. Finally, narrow this list of connections down by focusing on the knowledge that is most advanced or progressive and most unexpected.

Next, let’s consider the importance of disciplinary literacy when the topic of collaboration is outside your subject-matter expertise When collaborating on a topic outside of your area of expertise, you need to understand the challenge or topic well enough to be able to apply your perspective and come up with input that is useful and novel. A powerful way to demonstrate adequate understanding is to repeat back the challenge in your own words to the satisfaction of the person who is posing the idea or challenge – this is from Habit 5 of Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( It turns out that there are different types of literacy. For example, there is adult literacy which is about the ability of an adult to read, write, and apply math in daily living. Also, there is content area literacy which is the ability to use reading and writing to learn subject matter in a given discipline. Content literacy is about the techniques of studying and learning. In addition, there is disciplinary literacy which is about the knowledge and abilities possessed by those who create, communicate and apply knowledge within the disciplines. The most relevant type of literacy for collaboration is disciplinary literacy. The standards provided in the State of Wisconsin across subjects for speaking and listening for 12th graders is the base level of discipline literacy recommended for creativity ( These standards speak to specific abilities for comprehension and collaboration and specific abilities for presentation of knowledge and ideas. For example, two of the three abilities for comprehension and collaboration are as follow:

  • Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.
  • Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used

In practice for disciplinary literacy, the participants need enough content on the topic or challenge at hand to be able to initiate thinking, idea generation and collaboration. A useful framework provided here for this content is based on a course called Igniting Creative Potential ( This framework applies to a task which is the challenge or concept that the collaboration concerns. The framework is based on answering questions in three areas as follows:

  • Understanding the people involved
  1. Who is the sponsor of this task? What level of support is being provided to work on the task?
  2. How much excitement or passion do people have for the task?
  3. Do you have the right people (mix of people) working on this task?
  4. To what extent do people have authority and responsibility to take action on the task?
  5. Do people have the necessary knowledge or expertise to work on the task
  • Understanding the content
  1. How is what you want to create different from what you have now?
  2. What are the most important parts of the task to address? Least important?
  3. How big an area in the organization do you want to impact?
  4. Are you looking to improve current approaches and systems or to create entirely new or different ones?
  • Understanding the context
  1. What has been tried before to address this task? What happened?
  2. How linked is this task to the strategic priorities of the individual, group, or organization? Why or why not
  3. How realistic are the goals and expectations about what will be accomplished, and by when?
  4. Are the necessary resources (time, people, budget, etc) available for working on the task?

Finally, let’s consider the importance of creative confidence for a collaboration. In his TED talk called ‘How to Build Creative Confidence,’ David Kelley ( talks about the problem of ‘opting out’ that he saw with clients who didn’t feel they were the ‘creative type.’ Participants in a meeting with either ‘check out’ or use their Blackberry as an excuse to leave the meeting when the brainstorming processes began. David makes the point in his talk that we are all capable of being creative but things can happen in the course of our lives that discourage us from exercising our creativity. David also presents Professor Albert Bandura’s method of ‘guided mastery’ as a template for developing creative confidence. Bandura uses this approach to help people overcome their phobias in a period of four hours. Bandura found that the people who overcame their phobias ended up having less anxiety about other things in their lives. As a result, they tried harder, persevered longer, and were more resilient in the face of failure. The ‘guided mastery’ approach can be applied at the beginning of a collaboration to provide a safe place for participants to exercise and be supported in their expression of creativity.

If you would like to learn more about how perspective, disciplinary literacy, and creative confidence can transform your meetings and collaborations, then contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Ask about the first-time client offer.