Sun Tzu

The Paradox of Expertise

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Sun Tzu

Strength vs. Weakness:

Bill Taylor, the founding editor of FastCompany Magazine, spoke at a recent conference I attended (Milestones in Leadership) and mentioned this conundrum of being “locked-in” by your expertise. I have noted the same issue in several other ways — “Your strength is your weakness” or “A strength overused is a weakness.” There were more “gems” at this conference, and I am sure I will be writing about them for many months to come.

I think recognizing when to play to your strength or expertise and when to back off and learn something new is a key to good leadership. Timing is also critical. Our organizations would

ideally be taking advantage of strengths in market position while at the same time learning about new trends, technologies, and opportunities before the competition does. Ideally, we will be disruptive rather than letting our competitors take the lead.

Know Thyself

Knowing yourself, your team, your organization, and your competitors become critical to building sustainable advantage. Overusing strength to the detriment of learning something new and having adaptability ensures a weakness that your competition can and likely will exploit. The company that comes to mind is Kodak. Their power was in their chemical and film business. It was a considerable strength. Even though they understood digital photography well and developed digital cameras, they could not bear to leave their expertise. To cannibalize their film business by promoting digital photography was unthinkable. So, someone else did it for them. Kodak barely exists today.

An analogous situation may well be occurring in the Digital Camera business. Some of the manufacturers of the high-end Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras may miss the boat as the mirror-less camera systems continue to out-innovate them. We will have to wait and see if we once again live through the paradox of expertise.