Acquire ‘deep smart’ skills by consciously thinking about how the experts in your organisation operate and deliberately learn from them.

“I don’t know what we’d do without him!” That’s what an executive in a Fortune 100 company recently told us about a brilliant project leader.

We’ve heard the same sentiment expressed about many highly skilled specialists during the hundred-plus interviews we’ve conducted as part of our research into knowledge use and sharing. In organisations large and small, including NASA, the U.S. Forest Service, SAP and Raytheon, managers spoke of their dependence on colleagues who have “deep smarts” — business-critical expertise, built up through years of experience, which helps them make wise, swift decisions about both strategy and tactics.

Because deep smarts are mostly in experts’ heads — and sometimes people don’t even recognise that they possess them — they aren’t all that easy to pass on. This is a serious problem, both for the organisation and for those who hope to become experts themselves. If you wish to become a go-to person in your organisation but don’t have the time or opportunity to accumulate all the experience of your predecessors, you must acquire the knowledge in a different way.

Deep smarts are not merely facts and data that anyone can access. They consist of know-how: skilled ways of thinking, making decisions and behaving that lead to success again and again. Because they are typically experience-based, deep smarts take time to develop. They are often found in only a few individuals. They are also frequently at risk. Whatever the cause, the loss or scarcity of deep smarts can hurt the bottomline when deadlines are missed, a customer is alienated, or a process goes awry.

This potential loss to the organisation is an opportunity for would-be experts. Deep smarts can’t be hired off the street or right out of school. High-potential employees who prove their ability to quickly and efficiently acquire expertise will find themselves in great demand.

So how do you acquire deep smarts? By consciously thinking about how the experts in your organisation operate and deliberately learning from them. Of course, you can’t — and don’t want to — become a carbon copy of another person. Deeply smart people are unique — a product of their particular mindset, education and experience. But you should be able to identify the elements of their knowledge and behaviour that make them so valuable to the organisation.

Let’s look at a specific case, a composite drawn from the many executives we’ve helped to attain deep smarts: Melissa is currently a sales representative with a large international beer company, but she has her eye on a regional VP position. In thinking about how to become more valuable to her organisation, she considers which in-house experts she would like to emulate. George, a general manager who has risen through the ranks from sales, is known as a smart decision-maker, an outstanding negotiator and an innovator. In short, he would be an excellent role model.

Melissa doesn’t want to emulate George in every way. But she wishes she had his ability to evaluate, work with and motivate the distributors who serve as the company’s conduit to retailers and, ultimately, to consumers. What she needs is to unearth the essential skills that make him so effective with distributors, internalise his insights and mimic his critical behaviours.

Fortunately, George is willing to share his deep smarts with Melissa, but he has neither the time nor the inclination to make her training a priority. So it’s up to Melissa to figure out how to learn from him. She can take two approaches, which are not mutually exclusive. She can interview George and get him to tell her stories that will provide vicarious experiences. If Melissa is good at questioning, and George is able to articulate much of his knowledge, she will learn a lot.

This process has limits, however. George can’t tell Melissa everything he knows, because much of his wisdom is unconscious; he doesn’t think about it until a particular situation calls for it. Moreover, he’s often unaware of the communication style, diagnostic patterns and body language that he uses.

How can Melissa learn these things? Through a process we call OPPTY, which stands for Observation, Practice, Partnering and joint problem-solving, and Taking responsibilitY. Observation involves shadowing an expert and systematically analysing what he or she does. Practice requires identifying a specific expert behaviour or task that you can attempt on your own, but with supervision and feedback. Partnering and joint problem-solving mean actively working with the expert to analyse and address challenges.

Finally, when you’re ready, you can take over a significant part of the expert’s role. Along the way, you should deliberately reflect on each experience and internalise as much as possible.

When Melissa asks George to help her, she’s careful to frame his doing so as an opportunity for both of them. Next, she creates an action plan that outlines her near-term and ultimate goals and the steps required to achieve them, along with suggested deadlines.

As she goes along, Melissa notes what she has learned in a log, which both serves as an accurate record of progress (allowing for the re-evaluation of goals if need be) and ensures you’ve learned what you and the expert intended.

In the observation phase, Melissa accompanies George on his regular visits to retail stores. This takes no additional time or effort on his part but is an eye-opener for her. After a couple of months, Melissa is ready to move on to practise what she’s picked up from George. A few months after that, she begins to solve problems jointly with him.

You’ll note that Melissa has both the motivation and the discipline to persevere in learning — vital requirements for this process. And George is happy to help her, which is more common among experts than you might think. Many of those we’ve interviewed are willing to share their knowledge — thanks to an intrinsic interest in coaching or because they have incentives to do so, such as a lightened workload, kudos from management or the opportunity to build new knowledge and find new paths to innovation themselves.

There is an old saying: Good judgment comes from the experience of having made bad decisions. But we believe it’s more effective and efficient to build expertise through experiences guided by the smart people around you. If you observe, practise, partner and problem-solve with them before taking responsibility on your own, you’ll soon become as indispensable as they are.

Dorothy Leonard is the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration, Emerita, at Harvard Business School and a co-author of “Deep Smarts.” Gavin Barton is managing director of the consulting firm Leonard-Barton Group and a principal of GB Performance Consulting, which focuses on personal coaching. Michelle Barton is an assistant professor at Boston University School of Management and researches learning strategies during transitions and crises.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

If you observe, practise, partner and problem-solve with the smart people around you before taking responsibility on your own, you’ll soon become as indispensable as they are.

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