The Fragile Expert Framework for Developer-Client Interactions

Simply said, “I don’t know.”

It can be a daunting prospect to admit one’s own limitations, however recognizing and disclosing these feelings of helplessness, ineptitude or inexperience is essential for the foundation of the Vulnerable Expert Framework. Such recognition can be a crucial step to gaining the confidence needed to progress.

An end to the arrogant expert

It is my contention that the presence of arrogant experts is still a problem in business interactions, despite the prevalence of A-type personalities in sales. These are the people who believe that the best way to make an impression on a customer is to demonstrate confidence, expertise and authority at all times.

A potential downside of this approach is that it can lead to a dialogue which is largely dominated by one party. The expert may ask questions, but once they have identified a solution they can become the sole contributor, offering ideas until one is deemed successful. This can lead to a situation in which there is only one speaker.

To cut to the chase, there are two major problems with such mindset:

  • First, they will make assumptions about the project without taking into account the client’s context or obtaining their input. They are attempting to persuade others that, due to their experience, they are fully aware of any potential issues that may arise.
  • Secondly, those who are concerned about their personal reputation may be inclined to make more commitments than they can fulfil. An experienced individual who believes they can achieve anything can find it challenging to accept failure and may choose to appear amicable at all times.

Though there are some who may have malicious intentions, it is unlikely that most self-proclaimed experts assume this role knowingly. Their aim is to help the people they serve, and they likely believe that the best way to do this is by presenting themselves as the ideal consultant or developer.

Which expert is most likely to be a weak link, if any?

Consider an experienced programmer with expertise in a wide range of application development, artificial intelligence and programming tasks. This individual has worked on a variety of teams and approaches, and has an impressive record of success.

Imagine the same person with a child-like curiosity, always seeking new knowledge, eagerly embracing unfamiliar experiences and never settling for a simple answer. That is the definition of an exposed expert.

Blair Enns succinctly states that the focus should be on the customer’s needs rather than our own. We should be actively listening to the customer and gathering information to determine how best to meet their requirements, rather than attempting to sell them a product or service.

In addition to the client’s expertise,

The initial step in introducing the vulnerable expert framework is for the client to acknowledge that the developer is an individual with imperfections and that the client is the specialist in the matter.

The customer has a clear understanding of their own capabilities, available resources and timescales, and their individual perspective may not be immediately apparent to us as developers.

Having the ability to ask the right questions, rather than having all the answers, is key to being a competent vulnerability expert. Their expertise can help guide the discussion in a productive direction and provide potential avenues of investigation.

Neglecting to ask may be a powerful tool.

The Dunning-Krueger effect is a widely recognized phenomenon in psychology, often summarized in the phrase “the more limited our knowledge of a subject, the more confident we tend to be in our level of expertise”.

It may seem counterintuitive, but there is a valid explanation for it. Generally, an expert in a certain subject will be able to provide more information and knowledge due to their level of expertise. Consequently, this means they are more likely to be aware of their own capabilities and demonstrate a critical eye for their work, as they are familiar with the obstacles, problems and boundaries of their profession.

The conclusion we can draw from this is that being able to answer any query is not necessarily a sign of expertise. In fact, this is not always the case. If a customer is met with the response “I don’t know, but let me get back to you on that” from a developer, it should not be viewed as a cause for concern, but rather as a demonstration of the developer’s awareness of their own limitations, and their commitment to responsibly providing an answer.

Maintaining a level of introspection and awareness

The expert with one foot out of the door is the opposite of the salesperson who is eager to make a sale. They listen carefully to the client’s needs, ask for clarification where necessary and record any important details for future reference.

An experienced professional may feel the need to interject or express a differing opinion to their customer, but they should be conscious that this can lead to the attention moving away from the client and towards themselves and their expertise. Instead of responding with anger, they should withhold their opinion and approach the potentially contentious statement with a sense of inquisitiveness.

Similar to a Zen master, the vulnerable expert clears their mind to make space for the client’s experience. They will offer suggestions if requested, but they will not necessarily promote what they believe to be the optimal solution.

Finally, the expert is disadvantaged due to their lack of ability to communicate with others in their own language. By utilising the client’s language and choice of words, the expert is able to become proficient in the client’s native language. The expert here takes on the role of a mirror, reflecting the client’s understanding back to them.

Providing our customers with the means to achieve their goals

Ultimately, self-determination is the crux of the matter. The aim of the vulnerable expert paradigm is to even out the dynamics of the consultant-client relationship, thus allowing for a more equitable and transparent exchange of power.

When carried out effectively, clients gain a greater awareness of their role in the process and become more involved. At the same time, the developer benefits from a fuller comprehension of the project and the client’s trust in their skills.

The strength of vulnerability lies precisely in this.

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