How To Build On The Work Of Others


Friday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View life as a continuous learning experience. – Denis Waitley

Many many years ago I picked up a textbook that had something to do with a social science – I think it was something like semiotics and I found it a disconcerting experience. The textbooks I was used to simply talked about facts, about known things, things you could observe and try and calculate and measure and weigh and program. They just were. A physics textbook didn’t talk about how different people viewed gravity – it was simply something you used in a calculation. Of course, we knew that once upon a time there was a guy whose path intersected with an apple and before that people thought there was something called an ether – but that was history – stories.

This other textbook, however, was full of things like Person A said this, and Person B said that and this is what another commentator said – and I found that very strange. Did they just not know? Why was there all this focus on who said what? Surely the facts were all that mattered?

It took several years before I realised that the complex areas are the ones that deal with people and social situations – the kind of areas that don’t lend themselves to a tidy equation. And you need a different sort of knowledge to deal with them.

Now, you could come up with something new but the chances are that there are methods out there that people have tried before. Ackerman et al talk about how its hard to get people to build on prior work rather than constantly creating new approaches. If you keep placing a single brick on the ground you never create anything, but if you lay bricks on top of each other you can create a large structure.

But leads to a catch-22 situation; you have to invest the time to learn different approaches before you can tell if they’re worth learning. Just reading about it or doing a course isn’t enough too – you have to spend time applying what you learn to really get a feel for whether it will work for you or not.

Keys (2006) writes about this issue about gaining expertise – how someone new to a field has to learn how to use existing methods and tools, think about their experience, reflect on their use of the tools, and work out how to improve them. In doing so they adapt and customise the tools to work for them, potentially creating a unique approach that is the way they do things – their signature.

These challenges are like opposing forces, do you stick with the old or come up with something new, do you create something anyone can do or do you have to find something special that only you can do. There are no simple answers – if something is so easy that anyone can do it then it may not be worth you learning it too. If something is so hard that only you can do it people need to be able to recognise the value or you won’t get very far trying to sell your service.

It’s a hard circle to square, this one – but if you manage to do it you’ll probably have a competitive advantage others will struggle to match.


Karthik Suresh


Ackerman, F., Franco, L.A., Rouwete, E., White, L. (2014), “Problem structuring research and practice for the next decade: looing back to go forward”, EURO Journal of Decision Process, Vol 2, pp 165-172

P Keys (2006), On becoming expert in the use of problem structuring methods, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 57:7, 822-829

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