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Why you must not call yourself an expert?

Try being an adaptive expert who applies knowledge effectively to find solutions to novel or atypical problems

January 30, 2021 / 08:22 AM IST

Note to readers: Soch to Success is a weekly column to enhance critical thinking skills for you to achieve success. Each article is packed with insights, tools, and a roadmap to action.

Q: On an American $100 bill, there is a portrait of which American statesman?

1 George Washington

2 Benjamin Franklin

3 Franklin Roosevelt


4 Abraham Lincoln

The answer is 2. 

You may know the answer but Jamal, the protagonist in the movie Slumdog Millionaire had to revisit his childhood to dig for the answer. Jamal, an orphan who grew up in a Mumbai slum, had received a 100 dollar bill in tip. Jamal is participating in a live TV quiz where he stands chances to earn a million dollars but for that, he has to answer all questions correctly. It is tough, almost impossible for Jamal, who has little education, to ace the quiz. 

When the question is asked, he drifts back to a childhood event where he meets his beggar friend in an underground passageway. The friend has been blinded and is singing as he begs for money. Jamal recognizes him as his earlier campmate, feels connected and hands him over the dollar note. The blind boy asks Jamal to describe the picture on the note. As Jamal describes, the boy answers Benjamin Franklin. Back in the studio, Jamal gives the correct answer. 

Q: Cambridge Circus is in which UK city?

1 Oxford

2 Leeds

3 Cambridge

4 London

Jamal worked in a call centre and had learnt about Cambridge Circus there. So, it was easy but does he know the answer to the next question: 

Q: Who invented the first commercially-successful revolver?

1 Thomas Edison

2 Oliver Winchester

3 Samuel Colt

4 Daniel Wesson

A troubled childhood in slums made Jamal face tough situations, including a revolver that his brother once managed to use to save themselves from goons. That is how he knew about Colt, the name of the revolver. 

This is the world of fiction, where a slum boy becomes a millionaire by drawing answers to questions from his life experiences. We may not win hot seats on quiz game shows and bring in experience to answer questions but we do dig into our experiences to solve problems. This is called adaptive expertise. 

Adaptive expertise is the ability to apply knowledge effectively to novel problems or atypical cases to find solutions. Adaptive experts are characterised as being capable of drawing on their knowledge to invent new procedures for solving unique or fresh problems rather than simply applying already mastered procedures.

 Giyoo Hatano and Kayoko Inagaki (1986) coined the term “adaptive expertise”. They defined two types of expertise—routine and adaptive expertise. 

 Routine expertise is mastering procedures to become highly efficient and accurate. Adaptive expertise involves the ability to understand a new problem with a new solution and even design new procedures. 

To explain it simply, imagine two cooks in a house. One is a young lady who has learnt Japanese cooking and can roll the perfect sushi and the second person is her mother who has cooked and served for years. They receive a guest at home and the young chef wonders how to serve food with limited ingredients, while the mother calmly mixes up a few things and can serve some fusion food. The young lady is a routine expert, while the elderly is an adaptive expert. 

Adaptive experts adapt and overcome uncertainty by displaying high levels of performance, while routine experts struggle with novel problems. Both types of expertise comprise the same extent of domain knowledge and the ability to perform flawlessly in familiar situations. However, the difference becomes apparent once confronted with an unfamiliar circumstance: a situation in which the task, method or desired results are not known in advance. 


Studies have shown that adaptive experts are aware of the principles behind the process and they invest in learning not just what and how but also the why of a situation. 

 In today’s Habits for Thinking, it is important to understand the strengths of being an adaptive expert. Driven by technology adoption by end-users and technological advancement in work processes, the business behaviour changes rapidly. The only certainty that exists now is the uncertainty around the world. 

 The last time uncertainty in businesses came from unexpected quarters of the coronavirus pandemic but other than the pandemic there are several reasons that shake stability. It becomes imperative to understand that adaptive expertise helps to navigate through uncertainty. 

 Jamal had his troubled childhood to refer to while adapting to the circumstances. We have an understanding of knowledge and how to hone the expertise. It comes with practice in the routine. 

 According to John D Bransford, an emeritus professor of education at Washington University, "Adaptive expertise involves habits of mind, attitudes, and ways of thinking and organizing one's knowledge that are different from routine expertise and that takes time to develop." 

 While routine experts possess strong procedural knowledge, adaptive experts are likewise endowed with a strong conceptual knowledge base, allowing them to utilise their understanding to adapt previous mental models and frameworks to new situations.

 Researchers DL Schwartz, Bransford and D Sears graphically illustrated these two dimensions of expertise. On the horizontal axis, they plot the efficiency of problem-solving and on the vertical axis, the ability to innovate. 

 In this graph, they identify four important regions: Novice (low efficiency, low innovation), Routine Expert (high efficiency, low innovation), Frustrated or Annoying Novice (low efficiency and high innovation), and Adaptive Expert (high efficiency and high innovation). They suggest that one should aim for a balance between innovation and efficiency. 


Adaptive expertise can be developed and practiced. During the pandemic, people including routine experts, have been thrown out of their gear. Educators, medical professionals who have been experts in their fields had to deal with a new way of delivering their duties. The journey of becoming adaptive expertise begins with thinking about thinking —called Metacognition. 

Adaptive expertise is honed not by training of skills but by training of thinking. Metacognitive, which means processes and strategies on how we learn, play a role in making one adaptive expert. Learning style assessments, self-questioning, working in collaboration and thinking aloud are ways of metacognitive learning strategies. 

Jamal won the show in Slumdog Millionaire by demonstrating adaptive expertise. Our guiding principle needs to be:

a) Think about thinking and our learning style—to be metacognitive is the first step.

b) Refer to mental models, develop knowledge in other domains to enhance critical thinking and innovative thinking. These are ongoing learning steps. For example, learning about inversion thinking and applying it to your decision making is honing adaptive expertise.

c) Collaborate with others to listen to thoughts and ideas. Listening makes one reflect on our thoughts and ideas.

In the field of medical practice, there is ongoing work of helping doctors turn into adaptive experts, as they have been facing unique cases due to pandemic. The Master Adaptive Learner is a guide to train and teach doctors and clinicians to develop adaptive skills. The guide has these phases as steps to follow:

1 Planning: The learner identifies a knowledge gap without which she would not be able to begin learning solutions.

2 Learning: The learner must first appraise the resources she found—are they the right solutions to the problem—then go about digesting the information so it sticks.

3 Assessing: A combination of self-assessment and external feedback in which the learner determines if her findings would require her to change her practice.

4 Adjusting: The learner applies any necessary changes to her practice while determining the scope and scale at which they should be implemented.

It is not just about being an expert, it is about being an adaptive expert. So before you call yourself an expert, think are you a routine expert or an adaptive expert? And, remember adaptive expertise is an ongoing process. 


(Vishakha Singh, author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.) 
Vishakha Singh is an author of a forward-thinking course SHIFT, is a business strategist & a design thinking practitioner. She writes at, offering insights into the ever-changing business environment.
first published: Jan 30, 2021 08:22 am
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