It's great to be an expert, right? Of course it is. But is it possible that your expertise is actually undermining your ability to think creatively and be open to new ideas? Recent research has revealed that this is exactly what can happen.

Innovation--by definition--includes an element of newness. The more you know about a topic, though, the less likely you are to be open to truly groundbreaking advances in the same area. Put another way, the expertise that got you ahead can actually limit your creativity and willingness to consider new ideas.

Using applications for medical research grants, Kevin Boudreau and his colleagues found that evaluators gave their lowest ratings to the submissions with the greatest degree of novelty. Interestingly, if an evaluator was an expert in the area, even lower ratings were given. When new ideas are introduced, people tend to regard these critically. Experts in the area, however, are even more negative.

A great example of this in practice can be found with floppy disk drives. Memorex was the leader with the introduction of 14-inch disks, but didn't see moving to a smaller disk as a pressing advancement. Consequently, Seagate Technology took the lead with the 8-inch disk. And a different market leader emerged with the introduction of the 5-inch disk, and yet another with 3.5-inch disks. The market leaders (i.e., experts) were slower to move forward, and as a result, a new leader would emerge.

The closer to something you are, the more negatively you view changes or novel ideas. When this occurs, somebody else will undoubtedly press forward. This is illustrated by a recent story Malcolm Gladwell told about how Malcolm P. McLean became a pioneer in the shipping industry: McLean saw and acted upon what others failed to see. Experts in the field were too close to the situation and as a result would only make minor improvements. McLean, however, saw the bigger opportunity and revolutionized the industry (he created a detachable box trailer that could be loaded directly onto ships; the trailers are now used for the transportation of the majority of the world's cargo).

To avoid falling victim to your own expertise, utilize the techniques below. When you do, you will be more apt to seriously consider good ideas that you once might have discarded.

  • Break the idea down. Take the idea and deconstruct it into the simplest terms. An idea that seems foolish as a whole may seem very viable when you realize that the different parts of it could all work. 
  • Designate a devil's advocate. Pick someone to forcefully advocate for or against an idea. If the person agrees with you up front, force him or her to take the other side, and see what additional arguments are brought up to inform the decision.
  • Enlist mentors. Finding others to talk through a topic is always a good idea. Finding people from multiple areas--including other experts--will help push you and your thinking.
  • Find novices. It may seem counterintuitive, but also seek input from people with limited knowledge of the subject. Sometimes their "uninformed" views will actually be of huge value. The novices will often be future customers, and they will let you see the idea from that lens.