Outside Thinking

Outside Thinking: Why The Experts Aren't Always The Best Option

No, I don’t mean thinking outside, though that definitely has its merits too 😉

Although we could include thinking outside the box in this concept.

Has anybody ever said that to you?

That you need to try and “think outside the box”?

What they’re asking for is a fresh perspective on something, probably to help solve a niggling, persistent problem.

What they’re asking for is some outside thinking.

Cynical With Expertise?

Whilst it is natural when solving a problem to look for the biggest expert in that field, believe it or not the experts aren’t always right…

… because they can be too close to the problem at hand to see a solution. Their experience gets in the way to such an extent that they are intellectually handicapped by what that experience is telling them – they are cynical with expertise.

Instead, when a problem can’t be solved by the experts we must solve it by either ‘switching off’ what that expertise is telling us (thinking outside the box) or turning to someone from a different field altogether or at least on the periphery.

Innovation often occurs at the boundary of disciplines.

Asking The Stupid Question

Sometimes this outside thinking means simply that asking the stupid question is precisely what’s required.

I have often heard the expression ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question’ bandied about in my consulting career – and I have often suspected, cynical as I am, that the expression has been used by more senior consultants to encourage more junior consultants to ask the stupid question that they themselves didn’t dare ask.

As a management consultant there was always the risk that my company would ‘sell’ me into an assignment that I wasn’t entirely suited for and leave me to sink or swim. On one occasion, working with some huge egos I found myself in a meeting where my complete lack of knowledge on the subject lead me to ask stupid questions – almost like a child, with absolute naivete. What I discovered in private after the meeting was that the two biggest experts (and biggest egos) in the room would have loved to ask the same questions I was asking but couldn’t because it threatened their positions as experts to ask such things.

The project was a resounding success and I do genuinely believe that was in no small part because of my inexperience and ability to ask the stupid questions.

It’s Easier If You Take A Break…

Sometimes we are too close to a problem because we are over-tired and our minds are fogged.

Then it’s no wonder we struggle to think outside the box.

In this case, maybe we don’t need a fresh set of eyes, we just need to walk away for a while and come back to the problem feeling refreshed ourselves.

I once worked 72 hours straight for a client with my boss at the time. Though we felt we were very close to the solution to a particular problem, we were exhausted and not really doing ourselves any favors by hanging on in front of that computer screen. Eventually my boss told me: “Go and get a couple of hours sleep” – which I did. Funnily enough it was only minutes after I’d come back refreshed that the solution to the problem appeared.

So sometimes we can get the fresh perspective ourselves by walking away from the problem, taking a lunch break, getting some sleep or distracting ourselves for a while with something else and then coming back to it.

Swapping Experts for A Pool Of Strangers

There are several examples of this outside thinking concept from our modern world of technology.

Whenever I get a problem these days I am just as likely to find the answer from everyday people posting their answers to problems online in various forums as I am to get the answer from a professional.

I recently decided to have a go at re-upholstering the seats in my car. I’m not sure if you’ve ever tried such a thing but I can tell you it’s not the most obvious thing in the world working out how to get the covers off the car seats. Really, really tricky (at least in my case it was). I nearly gave up concluding the covers are just not meant to come off – they’re made like that (I couldn’t work out a way of getting the cover off without damaging one of the plastic hinge covers) – when I found a step-by-step guide online showing me how (here). So now I’m going for it!! No VW Garage would ever have told me how to do that.

The open-source community has long since been a fantastic source of great innovation and revelations, fixing all kinds of coding and technical problems, and with various crowdsourcing solutions cropping up every day, it is a common thing to find answers this way rather than from a single expert.

A Single Fresh Perspective

Even if not talking about a crowd-sourced solution, a fresh perspective often offers a better approach to a problem via outside thinking.

Granted that the ‘crowd’ mentioned above could actually contain some experts or at least combine the expertise of some experts ith some non-experts…

…and of course, sometimes the experts do have the answers…

…but when they don’t we can get our answers from a fresh perspective, from outside thinking – either via the kind of crowdsourced solutions mentioned above or simply from someone you wouldn’t have expected to have the answer – someone in a different field altogether.

There are several widely-quoted examples of this but one of my favorites is the example of Ed Melcarek, a physics graduate who helped solve a long-standing chemistry problem. He helped Colgate-Palmolive come up with a new way of injecting flouride powder into tubes of toothpaste because the old method had an issue whereby plumes of flouride dust polluted the factory. His solution involved imparting an electrical charge into the flouride, directing the particles straight into the tube more cleanly and efficiently than ever before (and avoiding the flouride dust problem). The solution had eluded Colgate engineers (experts in chemistry and engineering rather than physics) for decades.

I have a few examples of my own when I think about it – one of the simplest and most similar being that in the course of my career I have employed several people in the field of IT, yet one of the employees I’ve personally been most impressed with had no IT background to speak of at the time I employed him, rather being a philosophy graduate from Cambridge. His experience and approach given his philosophy background turned out to be a very useful way to address some of the IT issues he was faced with and certainly offered a fresh perspective to a lot of the problems we encountered.

How Can This Help You

Sometimes we can simply get too close to a problem to be able to solve it.

We are literally shackled by our knowledge and past experiences.

Therefore to proceed, if we can manage to recognize that this kind of intellectual constraint may be at play, we just need to take a step back and get a fresh perspective (or a good nights sleep) on the issue at hand… and if we can’t manage that fresh perspective ourselves, then it may be worth seeking that fresh perspective – that outside thinking – from someone else; and that doesn’t necessarily need to be someone in the obvious field of expertise.

In fact very often for the most tricky problems, it is actually better to deliberately look outside of the obvious field – to ask non-experts!


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