I recently had the pleasure of being invited up to a gathering of 8 communities in the Dehcho region of the NWT to talk about “on the land” youth addictions treatment. I actually listened more than I talked, and came away with a new-found appreciation for both the challenges and blessings of life in the north.

Something that struck me as I prepared my presentation was the difference between being an expert and having expertise.

I believe the rise of the “expert” is something that’s actually crippling our society from making better decisions and adapting to changing circumstances. There are many, many examples available about the failure of experts to not only predict, but react appropriately, to changing circumstances. Lehman brothers, anyone? Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq war? The collapse of the Soviet Union? All of these examples have something in common, supposed experts making decisions based on their narrow view and limited understanding of an issue, usually in a position greatly removed from the “front lines” of the situation.

Yet, despite the frequent failings of experts, society turns to them repeatedly for their sage advice. From economics to politics, war to disease…we routinely outsource decision making to people who are “specialists” in their fields. The problem with specialization is that we’re facing systemic and complex problems. These aren’t problems that are easily solved, and they don’t live within narrow fields of study.

“Expertitis” is the syndrome of assuming that you know the answer to something, because you’ve been right (or not horribly wrong) in the past. You might even have a master’s or doctorate on the subject. Regardless, you’ve stopped getting feedback, that essential piece of information in the system that tells you whether what you’re doing is working. Without feedback, you stop learning. And if you stop learning, you can’t adapt. And in evolutionary terms, if you can’t adapt….you die.

Thankfully, it’s not that adaptation is impossible. In fact, it’s how we got to where we are, and there are many great examples of adaptation to be found in the pages of history (recent and a bit further back). Apple was a computer company until it sold mp3 players. The Iraq war was all but lost in 2006 until a small group of soldiers started experimenting with a counter-insurgency campaign that went against their direct orders.

Adaptation starts with being curious about what’s really going on in the system. If you’re truly curious, you remain open to feedback. By accepting feedback you learn, and by learning you can adapt.

And adaptation has been, and will continue to be, the key to survival…whether you’re a society, government, business or person.