When you’re a spy, you meet a lot of experts. You meet area experts, scientific and technical experts, and experts on economics, politics, and diplomacy. But experts are everywhere.
If you’re in business, you might want an expert in marketing to help you. Or an expert in quality control. Or an expert in product distribution.
But how do you judge if they’re really an expert?
Most of the time, you rely on two indicators: Credentials in the field you care about and Experience generating the results you care about. If you’re lucky, you can rely on a third indicator: Proven Results of the thing you care about.
Ranked by importance, you want experts who can show:
Proven Results of the thing you care about.
Experience generating the results you care about.
Credentials in the field you care about.
But sometimes, you can’t find an expert with all three.
Sometimes, you can’t find an expert with even one of those three. Maybe, the expert doesn’t have Proven Results in exactly what you want to do. Or maybe, they have Experience in the wider field but not in your specific activity. Or maybe, there are no Credentials for what you want them to do.
In reality, it’s rare to find an expert in exactly what you want. And sometimes, you’re not sure if they’re really an expert (In the upcoming The 24th Name Part II, there’s a scene showing how to use field-specific questions to figure out if someone is really an expert).
So, how do you figure out if an expert can really help you?
You could ask the expert what steps they recommend to get your result. And then you evaluate each step to see if it applies. But if the expert is selling their services, they won’t want to give those steps away without being paid first.
You’re in a Catch-22 with experts: You can’t evaluate their expertise without knowing what their recommendations would be. And the expert can’t give away their recommendations without being paid.
Here’s the solution: To figure out if an expert can really help you, the first step to evaluate is the number of steps they’d recommend, even before knowing what those steps are.
Say you’re in charge of negotiating with North Korea to give up its nuclear arms. An expert comes in and says, “I have a plan for getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. If you follow my plan, there is a very high probability that North Korea will disarm. But you need to pay me, first.”
That sounds great. You’d love to hear their plan. And maybe they have Credentials, Experience and Proven Results in other fields (nobody has Proven Results in North Korean nuclear disarmament because it hasn’t happened yet).
But you're an expert on experts, so you ask them how many steps their plan requires. You ask them, "How many steps will it take to get us from today to North Korean nuclear disarmament?"
The expert might say there are five steps. Five steps to get from where we are today to total North Korean disarmament. You really want to know what those steps are, but they won't tell you without being paid.
So you ask another question: "What are the odds of each of the five steps getting its intended result?
The expert says each step has very high odds. For each step, the odds are:
Step One: 90%
Step Two: 85%
Step Three: 90%
Step Four: 80%
Step Five (North Korean nuclear disarmament): 90%
That sounds great, until you do the math.
Because these steps are consecutive, the odds of getting to Step Five’s result are the cumulative odds of all five steps: It’s 90% x 85% x 90% x 80% x 90%.
Multiplying all of those together, the odds of the expert’s plan being successful are: 49.6%
Without knowing the expert’s exact plan, he told you its chance of success is less than 50%.
Maybe that’s better odds than what you were planning. Or maybe it’s worse.
Either way, you have a better idea of whether it’s worth the money you’d need to spend to find out. (By the way, if an expert puts a probability of success on any step at 100%, don’t hire them, because there’s always a chance something could go wrong at every step).
That’s how you become an expert on an expert quickly: Ask them how many steps they’ll recommend and the probability of success of each. You don’t even need to know what those steps are.
If the odds don’t improve over what you could do on your own, don’t use them.
The odds of an expert being right all the way to the end usually end up being lower than they’ll lead you to believe.
One of the reasons I write the Spy’s Guide books (and The 24th Name fiction) is to give you ways to get through complex things quickly.
Use the number of steps and the probability of each to become an expert on an expert quickly.