Adaptive Experts: Who are they, why teams should have one, and am I one?

There are two types of experts: Routine and adaptive experts. Both require expertise in a field. The differences between them is how they are dealing with changs in their environment.

Adaptive expertise: What is it?

I have been studying adaptive expertise for the past five years, beginning with a summary of what other people have already established. People with adaptive expertise are able to keep up their performance level even when faced with an unfamiliar situation. For example, imagine you are cooking at your friend’s place your favorite recipe, only that your friend doesn’t have any measurement cups or a scale. If you are an adaptive expert, dinner will still taste great even thou you can’t measure any of the ingredients.
Novelty enters work in many disguises. Some are obvious, like changing your job. Others are more subtle, for example presenting your work to a newly hired boss. The reason why adaptive experts are better able to deal with changes in their routine is that their expertise is more fine-grained. Over time, they have built a mental model about their expertise that has more concepts and more links between those concepts. That gives them the platform from which to springboard new insights, create new knowledge, and build new processes.
Individuals are not born with adaptive expertise, but become one. This is good news because it means that we can all learn to become an adaptive experts in our fields. Daniel Schwartz, John Bransford, and David Sears explain that the path towards adaptive expertise is alternated between repetitive exercises in one domain, and new challenges that are somewhat related to the domain but don’t resemble the learned exercises. This mixture between doing the same thing several times, and being confronted with something seemingly unrelated puts learners in the optimal innovation corridor: They have gained enough experiences in one domain to not be completely frustrated when challenged with a new task. This new tasks pushes the learner to revisit the old tasks and wonder “Why have I done this ?”. It is through this questioning and reflection of work routines that learners develop a fine-grained conceptual map. This gives them the power to be adaptive.
Daniel L. Schwartz, John D. Bransford and David Sears: Optimal Adaptability Corridor (Efficiency and Innovation in Transfer, p. 55)

Daniel L. Schwartz, John D. Bransford and David Sears: Optimal Adaptability Corridor (Efficiency and Innovation in Transfer, p. 55)

Adaptive expertise: Why teams should have one

Teams are created for the expected. There is an expectation about what expertise is needed for the project to be successful. There is an expectation about who is able to work with whom without cat fights and backstabbing. My DreamTeam Assembler from Northwestern University takes all of this into account. But teams and their work aren’t linear and predictable. Shit happens. You need adaptive experts exactly for those moments, when something or all goes wrong.
Adaptive experts are important in teams not just when things go wrong. In those situation they are just extremely important, because they are better able than routine experts to take the resources the team has (e.g. knowledge, strategic goals, task flow) and revamp it for the team to be able to perform in the new situation. When everything just goes as planed, adaptive experts greatest contribution to the team is how they handle new information and calls for help. New information is any type of information (e.g. market analysis, new technological provider, new laws, customer’s backlash against the company). Adaptive experts can determine if the new information is relevant for the team and who in the team is best suited to act on this information, based on their expertise. Adaptive experts also have an edge over routine experts by realizing sooner when their expertise is insufficient and help is needed. By asking for help at the right moments, adaptive experts can deliver higher quality products.

Adaptive expertise: Am I one?

Chances are you have some level of adaptive expertise. Most of us work in different functions and have had some variety in task experience. What I know so far is that to be an adaptive expert, you need:
  • A match in your education and your job. That gives you the basis on which to innovate.
  • 4 or more years of work experience. That gives you the chance to become an expert.
  • 2 or more job functions. That gives you the variety, necessary to become adaptive.
If you want to be certain if  you are an adaptive expert and your level of adaptive expertise, there is no way around taking this short survey:
Infographic: How do you deal with change at work? –

Infographic: Can you deal with change? –

Adaptive experts are those people who, confronted with unfamiliarity, fully embrace it. They are important for teams for two reasons: First, they give new information to the expert and second, they are quick in realizing when to reach out to others for help. To become an adaptive expert you need a mixture of domain expertise and task variety.
Other work on adaptive expertise:
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