I have found that the most significant difference between experts and those with less competence is what they attend to. Experts pay attention to certain things and ignore others. Less competent people are often unaware of what an expert considers significant and pays attention to what an expert ignores.
But it’s not just what an expert attends to. They also see differences between things where a novice sees just one thing. These differences are called “distinctions.” A distinction is a difference in the state of things that is useful.
- An expert carpenter knows the difference between cutting wood with the grain or across the grain.
- An expert snow skier uses differences in the snow to see types of snow – powder, wet, etc., Whereas I’ll just see white snow
- An expert small boat sailor – will notice the difference when waves have ripples and when they don’t. She’ll attend to the relationship of the wind to the sail.
- A good bicyclist will understand the difference between using the front or rear brake. And the rear and front derailleur.
- A good composer will understand the difference between a major chord and a minor chord – as will someone playing something by ear.
- A good Agilist will understand the difference between flow and timeboxing.
- A good Agilist will understand the difference between an artifact that is releasable and one that isn’t.
- A good Agilist will understand the implications of working on small batches instead of larger ones.
- A good Agilist will see the difference between starting with values before taking action and starting by taking action before worrying about values.
Distinctions as a way of thinking
How you solve challenges is related to how you see the issues. But you see the problems through distinctions that you’ve learned are essential to pay attention to and a set to ignore.
Attending to distinctions is a great way to learn. When faced with someone who says there’s a difference between two things that you don’t see, consider how to have a conversation with them. You can say, “there’s no difference between these two things,” or you can ask, “I don’t see the difference between these. Can you explain what you see?” The first sets up a competition between the two of you, while the second gets around cognitive bias (which impedes learning) to some extent. Of course, maybe the difference is not useful, but there’s more to learn if you consider the possibility.
You can help people learn by attending to what they aren’t seeing. Notice the distinctions they apparently are not attending to. It is often a good practice to ask if they see differences that you see but that they don’t appear to.
This perspective is consistent with Edgar Shein’s observation that “We do not think and talk about what we see; we see what we are able to think and talk about.” It may be you can’t see something that is there.