In his book, Educating the Reflective Practioner, Donald Schon recalls the story of how Bernard Greenhouse, a famous cellist, learned to play while studying under Pablo Casals.

Greenhouse would spend three hours per lesson with Casals. For about an hour of each lesson, Casals would play a phrase and have Greenhouse repeat it. If Greenhouse didn’t repeat it perfectly, Casals would stop him and say, “No, no. Do it this way.” Greenhouse was concerned that this process of mimicry would only turn him into a poor copy of Pablo Casals. Yet, once Greenhouse became an expert at mimicking Casals, Casals did something that surprised him:

“And at that point, when I had been able to accomplish this, he said to me, ‘Fine. Now just sit. Put your cello down and listen to the D-Minor Suite.’ And he played through the piece and changed every bowing and every fingering and every phrasing and all the emphasis within the phrase. I sat there, absolutely with my mouth open, listening to a performance which was heavenly, absolutely beautiful. And when he finished, he turned to me with a broad grin on his face, and he said, ‘Now you’ve learned how to improvise in Bach.’”

Somewhere on the continuum between novice and true expert (i.e., the person who can ‘improvise in Bach’) lies the dogmatic expert.

The dogmatic expert has internalized the rules and processes in his or her area of specialty. He or she can apply those rule better, faster, and deeper than anyone around. Yet, instead of having the freedom that Casals showed when ‘improvising in Bach’, the dogmatic expert becomes trapped in his or her own expertise. He or she lacks the flexibility to adapt to situations where the rules don’t work out perfectly. Instead of using expertise to move people forward, the dogmatic expert often shuts other people down when they don’t follow the process perfectly.

I first encountered dogmatic experts early in my career. I was part of a training and development group. We had people who were “experts” in instructional design processes. They were very good at what they did when they were able to execute their process from start to finish. However, when the client needed something done fast or suggested that they skip a step, the experts often became flustered. They’d dig-in and insist that the process couldn’t be done that way and that the final result wouldn’t be good. The more they dug in, the more the client worked around them. While the experts were explaining why the client’s process wouldn’t work and why their product would fail, the client produced their own training. Then while the experts were compiling their critiques of the course and explaining why it wasn’t very good, the people taking it were learning from it, improving their skills, and giving it high marks.

The real expert was the one who was able to adapt the important design principles to the client’s context. This involved following the spirit of the process and principles without following each step exactly. He improvised within the design process.

Expertise is highly valued in organizations. However, true expertise is the ability to combine what you know with the context around you. The people who are able to improvise within the rules and processes of their discipline are the ones who create value for their companies.

Too often, we try to demonstrate our expertise by showing how other people’s actions aren’t “right”. That’s not what expertise is about. Expertise isn’t about shutting others down. Expertise is helping other’s succeed within their context. It’s about knowing which rules can bend and which must be reinforced.

Where do you sit on the expertise continuum? Do you find yourself stifled when people don’t follow your process to the letter? Are you able to take a less than ideal situation and get the most from it? Or, are you the one who is shutting people down for not doing things the right way?

Dogmatic experts look good on paper but often compromise as much value as they create. Don’t fall into that trap.

Brad Kolar is the President of Kolar Associates, a leadership consulting and workforce productivity consulting firm. He can be reached at

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