Bionic Ankles, Jay Martin, and the Myth of Expertise

by David Burkus

10/16/2013

Jay Martin had no experts.

As a designer of prosthetic limbs, he received a research grant for $300,000 in 2002 and used it to found his new company, Martin Bionics, based in Oklahoma City. The grant was given to help Martin develop a prototype for a new kind of prosthetic ankle. Martin’s idea was to use robotics technology to create a device that would sense the changes in terrain and make adjustments in real time.

Martin’s problem wasn’t that there were no experts; he had previously employed plenty of them. Upon first receiving the grant, Martin set to work building the best team that could be assembled. He hired a group of PhDlevel experts in computer systems and mechanical and electrical engineering. The team began work on the problem, but quickly stalled out. Eventually, they concluded that what Martin envisioned could not be done. Every possible solution they thought of had a known barrier they couldn’t cross. They argued that the technology wasn’t available yet. They argued that the physics didn’t work out right. “If it were easily possible,” Martin says, “it would have already been done. I knew that going in. I felt it was difficult, but it was possible.” Martin’s team of experts felt otherwise.

So he fired them. All of them.

With the slate wiped clean and Martin ready to start again, his new expert problem truly developed: there was money awarded to develop the proposed device and a deadline approaching quickly, but he had no experts who believed that his product could be developed. As part of their basic education, most engineers had learned about the barriers Martin’s original team had discovered. “As these engineers and programmers are trained, they run up against all sorts of dilemmas,” says Martin. “Some they solve, and others they can’t. Especially in prosthetics, the longer you’ve been working, the more you become certain of what is possible and what isn’t.” Martin’s old team and the existing pool of trained engineers had concluded that what he imagined wasn’t possible. So Martin decided to assemble a new team of people who didn’t know what wasn’t possible.

He chose interns.

The eight members of this new team knew the basics of their subject area but had no prior experience in robotics or prosthetics—which meant they had no preconceived notions about the supposed impossibility of their project. They didn’t yet know what the barriers to the design were. “They had no conceived notions of what was possible or impossible,” Martin recalls. “I told them it was possible, and they believed me. So we got to work.”

It took a long time. Martin and his team worked hard through countless cycles of trial and error. It wasn’t the most elegant path to success, but eventually they did arrive at a working prototype. The team of layman engineers became the first group ever to develop a real-time control system for a prosthetic ankle of this type. “Had I kept a team of experienced engineers, I might have made progress more steadily, but the product I developed wouldn’t have the same quality,” Martin argues. “We found a truly creative solution to our development problem, one that a professional-level team might never have discovered.”

Martin and his team developed a groundbreaking device. Because of the success of the prosthetic ankle, as well as his other designs for prosthetics, Martin Bionics grew to become one of the largest prosthetics R&D companies in the United States. But Martin never forgot the experience of working with that inexperienced team on that “impossible” project.

When facing tough problems that require creative solutions, we often believe that we need to enlist the help of more people with greater expertise. This is what I call the Expert Myth, one of many faulty myths we have around how creativity works. It’s the belief that a correlation exists between the depth of a person’s knowledge and the quality of the work that person can produce. This seems so logical that it’s difficult to argue with. In many cases it is even true. Except that, logical as this seems, the correlation between a person’s level of expertise and his or her creative output isn’t what one might expect. Research into the lives and careers of creative people shows that, at a certain level, expertise can actually hinder the creative ability of individuals and decrease their creative output. As expertise grows, creativity sometimes diminishes.

MARTIN DECIDED TO ASSEMBLE A NEW TEAM OF PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T KNOW WHAT WASN’T POSSIBLE.

However, expertise also has the potential to block creative insights. Elite experts, like the ones Jay Martin fired, still produce creative insights, but their expertise can cause them to dismiss those insights in the moment of ideation. In the end, they lack the quantity of new ideas needed to elaborate on so that they can develop the great ones. The people who solve tough problems often come from the edge of a domain. They have enough knowledge to understand the problem but don’t have a fixed method of thinking. Because of this, they possess the creative ability to find the right solution. Their unique perspective allows them to generate a diverse set of ideas and still have enough domain knowledge to evaluate which ideas have merit.

That’s why many of the best insights come from those outside a particular field, and the best inventions develop from teams built from these outsiders – like Martin’s interns.

More recently, Martin sold his design, and his company, to a prosthetics manufacturer and set his focus entirely on design. “I see inventing like an art form; patents are my canvas,” Martin says. His company, now called Martin Bionics Innovations, focuses on designing innovative products in various fields, including prosthetics, using new technologies. And it still hires mostly interns. “Roughly 95 percent of people I hire start as interns. I and I just get a higher level of creativity and drive from them,” Martin says. Their ideas are more innovative, and their solutions more creative.”


Reprinted by permission from the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand, from The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus Copyright (c) 2013 by David Burkus.

Reprinted in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2013.