Whether it's an application user interface, a piece of equipment, a redesigned process, a marketing strategy, or whatever, when the unexpected occurs, we ask experts to explain how to proceed, or to fix the problem. When they can fix it, that's great, but when they can't, our first thoughts are usually that the expert we called is perhaps not expert enough. That's the easy case, so let's set it aside.
The more difficult case is that the experts we called are skilled enough, and might even be the best there is, but they're expert in the wrong field. How can this happen? What are the consequences? How can we prevent it?
Three important mechanisms can lead to calling the wrong expert.
- Limited authority to choose
- We can't always choose the expert we need. Budget restrictions, signature authority, and expert availability sometimes dictate the choice.
- Control mechanisms and expert availability can both generate risk. Account for this risk in risk plans.
- Incorrect diagnosis
- Sometimes we diagnose the problem incorrectly, either by honest mistake, or by overestimating our own diagnostic expertise.
- Unless you have diagnostic expertise, let experts perform the diagnosis.
- Undue influence by experts
- Sometimes an expert employee, consultant, or contractor recommends an expert, not on the basis of suitability, but as a favor to the expert being recommended, or because of constraints imposed by the recommender's employer.
- Validate recommendations for their objectivity.
Calling in the wrong expert can have serious consequences:
- Wasting time and resources
- Experts (and all people) are vulnerable to what psychologists call a mental set. If the problem solution lies within the expert's domain of expertise, nobody can address it better. But if the problem solution lies elsewhere, we waste time and resources eliminating all possible solutions within the expert's domain.
- Damaging assets
- Before the wrong experts deduce that the problem solution lies outside their domains of expertise, damage to assets is possible. The experts might even be the agents of the damage.
- The one benefit Sometimes we diagnose the problem
incorrectly, either by honest mistake,
or by overestimating our own
diagnostic expertiseof choosing the wrong expert is the potential to learn the importance of choosing the right expert. That learning can lead us to re-examine the expert-choosing process.
To prevent recurrences, consider two measures. First, avoid diagnosing problems. For example, if the computer can't communicate with the network, don't assume that the computer is defective, or that the network connection is defective. Simply report that the computer can't communicate with the network. Second, consider calling on an expert to tell you what kind of expert you need. In healthcare, this role has been called diagnostician, but the role is emerging in many fields. Before calling an expert, find a "diagnostician" for the relevant problem domain.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
- Critical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
- When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly
observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers,
and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- Solving the Problem of Solving Problems
- Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions,
or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
- Tackling Hard Problems: I
- Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project.
Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps.
- Thirty Useful Questions
- Whether solving technical problems, creating plans, or puzzling through political tangles, asking the
right questions can be the key to finding useful approaches. An example: What questions would I like
to know the answers to?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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