Henry Ford on Experts

Henry Ford, who founded the Ford Motor Company, had a lot of cool stuff to say. This quote, like a few others, has stuck with me.It is profound and has changed how I think when someone describes themselves as an expert.

“None of our men are ‘experts.’ We have most unfortunately found it necessary to get rid of a man as soon as he thinks himself an expert because no one ever considers himself expert if he really knows his job. A man who knows a job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives up an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind in which nothing is impossible. The moment one gets into the ‘expert’ state of mind a great number of things become impossible.”

I’ve found this to be often true. I’ve come across some very smart people who learn something well and then get stuck in their ways. They fail to evolve or leave themselves closed to new and potentially better ways of doing things.

There’s a difference between an actual expert, who’s no talk, and a hack, who’s all talk.

It’s the person who shows up to a project, solution in hand! They are the hammer and every project is a nail. This expert thinking usually results in missed opportunities to make something better. it also results in missed opportunities to improve their own craft.

We as engineers are particularly susceptible to this. Beware of hubris.

Have confidence in your ability to add value but don’t forget to keep learning.

The Speed of Implementation

Speed of implementation is a critical skill to foster if you want to grow your effectiveness as an engineer. As soon as you learn something, you need to practice it. Learn by doing; it’s easier said than done.

Whether building competence through learning or generating ideas and putting them to use, the same critical habit is required: speed of implementation.

Technological innovation is speeding up. If you have an idea, it’s very likely a number of other people have a similar thought or idea at the same time. That’s why it’s becoming more and more critical to move and act on an idea as fast as possible. The window of opportunity for a particular improvement or advancement is getting tighter and tighter.

The increasing consequences on relative laggards is very evident if you look at the general trend of how long companies and industries survive.

A researcher named Richard Foster calculated that in 1958 a company in the S&P 500 could expect to stay on the list for 61 years.  Today it’s 18.

Delay is suicide. What if the founders of Uber had waited a few years to launch their idea? If they had started three years later, their company would probably have had 1% of the success that Uber enjoys today.

When you’re thinking of building a product, the idea is less likely to be viable the longer you wait. Great ideas have a short shelf life; and its getting even shorter.

There is a story about Dan Sullivan, the strategic coach, who was running a workshop for two groups at the same time.  One group was $1000 a seat, the other group was $10,000 a seat. At some point, one of the people in the $1000 group asked Sullivan what he was teaching those people in the $10,000 group that he wasn’t teaching them. Dan said he was teaching the same stuff to both groups, and in fact wasn’t getting though as much material with the $10,000 group as he was with the $1000 group. He said the $10,000 group needed to go though the materials slower as they were trying to really understand the subject matter. Also, as soon as they got it they immediately needed a break so they could try to apply what they’d learned.

Test out your idea in the real world immediately, because the window is not going to stay open for very long.

If you just learned something useful, practice it right away.

If you just had a great idea, try to take the next step right away.

On Human Ingenuity

Paul Zane Pilzer, an economist, wrote about patterns throughout history in the distribution of scarce resources. He identified a clear pattern: whenever a resource nears depletion, we humans use our ingenuity to solve the problem of scarcity. He described how traditional economics is essentially the study of limited resources and explained how history is filled with examples where we used our thinking to solve the problems of resources.

For example, in the 1970’s, we were said to be nearing peak oil use and it looked like we’d be running out very soon. Immediately, people went to work to figure out new ways to do things.

We invented technology to help cars get more miles per gallon.

We invented more ways of vastly increasing our efficiency in generating more electricity per barrel of oil.

This quickly extended the horizon of when we’d run out of oil and enabled people to start thinking about how to create new sources of energy that were far more sustainable.

Once humans recognize that a resource is scarce, we either figure out how to extend its longevity or invent something new to replace it. We essentially create abundance where scarcity once was.

The lesson for engineers here is that there is opportunity all around to apply our ingenuity to solve problems and make things better, more efficient. These opportunities are always present, you don’t need to wait for the next oil crisis.

Going back through the history of great inventions, you’ll see a clear pattern: people who used their creativity and imagination to discover, or combine, or integrate things together.

Look for opportunity in your work to take resources from a lower level of productivity to a higher level of productivity. Practice applying your own ingenuity.