How do you tell an expert from a novice? Look at how they plan.

"Start with a blank piece of paper and a pencil."

This was the advice given by the professor in my database class in graduate school.  He implored us to stay away from the computer until we had the database mapped out on paper.

Of course, we all went directly into the computer lab, thinking: “Who has the time to map it out on paper first?  We’ll just figure it out as we go!  That’s efficiency!”

Fast forward to hours spent in the lab with zero progress made on the database.  We turned to the blank piece of paper.  Of course, the paper method worked!

What our professor had offered was a strategy of experts.  Experts put a lot of effort into understanding the problem, while novices tend to focus on immediate tasks and take a trial and error approach.

I thought of this recently when a reader asked for advice on how to effectively execute the planning phase of implementation, particularly when the sponsor or team wants to skip it and just start already…seems a lot like a group of eager database students, who didn’t have the patience to think before doing!

I try to tackle my reader's question in this three-part post on planning. In Part I, I review three ways to evaluate how much planning you should do for any given project – ask yourself, ask the academics and ask your team.

In Part II, this post, I turn to research on problem-solving and expertise.  Particularly, what we can learn about planning from the problem-solving practices of experts and novices.  

Learn from "the best."

I tend to view planning as a problem-solving exercise, so I am intrigued by the parallels I see between good planning practice and the problem-solving strategies used by experts.

Researchers investigating expertise have found that experts from a wide variety of fields – chess, physics, math, education – tend to use similar strategies when tackling problems.  They also tend to come up with the best solutions with the least effort (Chi, 2006; Bransford, 2000). That sounds a lot like what we are aiming for when we plan!  

While just doing what experts do won't make us experts, it can give us insight into how to become more knowledgeable and apply our knowledge in ways that improve our performance.

Importantly, the research I reviewed frames expertise as relative. Meaning, experts aren't simply smarter than the rest of us. Rather, they are people who have studied, learned and practiced their way to a place of "consummate skill" (Chi, 2006). Viewing expertise as relative also means experts don't always have the right answer.  Take heart; even experts are continuously learning.

Some common problem-solving strategies experts use include (Chi, 2006; Bransford, 2000):

  • Spending a long-time understanding the problem.

  • Identifying meaningful patterns.

  • Organizing information related to principles and concepts.

  • Reconsidering; developing alternative theories.

Keep a "beginner's mind."

It's also important for us to understand where novices perform better than experts.  This information may be particularly useful for more experienced implementers, as a check on overconfidence.  It can also serve as a reminder to more experienced project leaders to fully leverage the value of all members of your team, even those who may be newer to the task.

Some common pitfalls of experts include (Chi, 2006):

  • The curse of knowledge: Experts may not be able to teach what they know because they find it hard to remember what it's like to not know it! They also tend to underestimate the abilities of novices.

  • Context-dependency: Performance of experts can suffer in novel situations or where contextual clues are not available.

  • Inflexibility: Experts can have difficulty devising creative solutions or adapting to changes in procedures or norms. Although "virtuoso" experts tend to more adaptive and do not suffer this limitation.

What about you?   

Do you tend to plan like an expert or a novice?  Reflect on the last time you had to plan for something.  It could be a project, a meeting, or maybe just writing an email.  How did you go about it? Compare your "go to" practices with those of experts and novices (see graphic above.)

If you could only improve in one are, which would it be?  

Keep this in mind when reading the third and last post in this series on planning (look for it soon). In it, I review research-backed methods for building your expertise in planning. 


Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, M. Suzanne. Donova, James W. Pellegrino, and Rodney R. Cocking. "How Experts Differ from Novices." How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington, D. C.: National Academy, 2000. 31-50. Print.  See here.  

Chi, Michelene T.H. "Two Approaches to the Study of Experts’ Characteristics." The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.  Ericsson, 2006. 21-30. Print. See here.