Don’t ask experts to solve your problem

If you’re trying to understand, and ultimately solve, a complex problem, It’s wise to consult one or more experts. However, it’s a mistake to ask these experts how you should solve your problem.

A while ago I read the book ‘Stop Guessing by Nat Greene. Stop Guessing is a relatively thin book, but in it are some thought-provoking recommendations. One of the things Greene describes in the book is how to involve experts in your problem-solving efforts.

Greene’s advice to never ask experts to solve your problem resonated with me, as I often warn interns (and new employees) about underestimating the importance of interviewing experts RIGHT. Lesson one is pretty straightforward: don’t take what an expert tells you at face value. Instead, keep asking follow-up questions until you know exactly WHY he or she makes a particular claim. Lesson two is not as obvious: make sure you ask the right questions.

The curse of knowledge

What makes someone an expert? Well, generally, experts have lots of experience and in-depth knowledge of how something works. Their extensive experience is what makes them knowledgeable, but it is also what makes them an unlikely source of creative solutions. Experts are burdened by ‘the curse of knowledge; they know so much that it limits their imagination. It’s incredibly hard for experts who know a lot about a topic to seriously consider possible alternatives that don’t fit with what they expect. Because of this, it’s easy for an expert to miss or ignore unusual data.

What you shouldn’t ask experts

When interviewing experts, don’t ask them: “How should I solve this?” or “What’s causing this?” If it were that easy, an expert would’ve solved it by now. There is, however, a more important reason not to ask an expert to solve your problem; experts are likely to favour a ‘just in case’ approach. They won’t want to risk their reputation with a solution that might not work, so they’ll be tempted to advise you to get a new product or system entirely, instead of attempting to fix what’s broken. After all, advising you to buy an expensive solution that’s guaranteed to work won’t destroy their career. Attempting to fix the problem, on the other hand, might damage their reputation if it doesn’t work. Why risk it?

What to ask instead

Experts are risk-averse and eager to spend your money. Don’t ask them how to solve your problem. Instead, use their expertise to help you understand what’s going on. Ask them questions like “Please help me to understand how this system works.” This way, the expert can share his or her invaluable experience and knowledge, without being tempted to give you well-intended opinions and advice. Ask questions until you understand exactly how the (part of the) system that’s causing problems works.

Once you fully understand how a system or process works, you are well equipped to generate solutions. Using a fresh perspective and creative thinking techniques, you are likely to find original solutions the experts in the field would never have considered.

Would you like to know what else is essential in solving complex problems? Then consider contacting us for an in-company workshop on Creative Problem Solving or for some innovation coaching. We’ll gladly teach your team to solve any problem creatively and are happy to guide you through the process of problem-solving yourself.

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