Having years of experience can help people tackle problems on an intuitive level. If you’ve worked in an area for 20 years, you automatically know what potential solutions have a good chance of working, and which ones have a poor chance of working.
This skill can dramatically speed up the problem solving process, as it makes it less likely to waste time pursuing unproductive/unlikely solutions. The downside is that the very know-how that drives intuition can also result in bias. Bias can often result in prematurely discarding potentially interesting solutions, and can also discourage asking those all-important stupid questions that can sometimes lead to disruptive ideas.
Our company builds multidisciplinary teams from our pool of experts to solve difficult problems for companies. For one particularly difficult biotech problem for a Fortune 500 company, we put a team together that included a subject matter expect, and four others who were from adjacent areas of technology. The subject matter expert was new to our process, and was selected because of his extensive experience: had been in the industry for over 30 years, and was also a distinguished professor at a highly-rated university.
The team eagerly began work on the problem, but after about 2 weeks, the professor called us privately and said that “I’m the only one on the team with the extensive experience to solve this problem. I teach this stuff at university, and these Neanderthals are just holding me back. Furthermore, I don’t want to have to split my money with them when I solve this problem”. We spoke with the team, and they agreed to continue on their own without the subject matter expert, with the professor working alone, both working on competing solutions.
You can probably guess the punch line:
While the subject matter expert came up with an interesting but incremental solution (which was rejected by the client), the “team of Neanderthals” came up with a novel, breakthrough solution, and were paid. By rejecting his teammates because they didn’t have the same, intuitive grasp of the subject, he set himself up for failure.
The point of all of this is that although having access to someone who is intimately familiar with the technology is important to a team to help apply a solution, teaming them up with talented people pulled from other disciplines can lead to real breakthroughs. By not knowing enough to hold biases or ask the uninformed/naive questions that the experts are too afraid to ask, people from other disciplines can push the conversation into a space where truly creative thoughts can materialize.
Paul is the President of IdeaConnection, one of the world’s leading Open Innovation service companies, helping solve difficult problems for some of the largest companies in the world.