Getting Answers from Unusual Places

30 Mar

Sometimes the answer to a problem comes from an unusual place that is right in front of us. This article covers how we can potentially transfer expertise from one disciplinary subject to another.

Many organisations contain expertise which stretches across multiple disciplines. For example, construction, engineering, research and development all contain reservoirs of expertise particular to their discipline’s training, experience, and cultural sense making. All these disciplines apply their expertise to design, deliver and problem solve during the completion of tasks. Problem solving, and dealing with tough non routine cases, are generally the points where expertise becomes most active and innovation takes place (Taleb, 2012, Klein, 2014).

However, because expertise is so “taken for granted” by the frontline workers who apply it, expertise rarely gets talked about in enough detail for it to be captured and shared in a meaningful way (Rugg et al, 2013). The result is that valuable tacit knowledge, and innovation, remains “used but not known” within an organisation.

The “used but not known” situation has implications for bringing novice staff up to the standard of experienced frontline workers. If procedures (despite their strengths) do not capture how “things really get done” embodied in tacit skills, then organisations can be left relying on new staff serendipitously discovering the most effective experience which defines success for the best frontline workers (Cooke, Durso, 2008).

The “used but not known” situation also has implications for inter disciplinary problem solving. When a discipline encounters a problem, it will frequently apply its training, experience, and cultural sense making to solve it. However, if this problem somehow escapes the boundaries of current disciplinary thinking, then it’s easy to get stuck.

Thinking can become compartmentalised. This means that disciplinary thinking can become rigid and closed. The same process occurs on a different scale when looking for car keys. You become convinced you left the keys in the living room, and keep looking and looking, mystified when they don’t appear. Your thinking has become compartmentalised, fixated on a solution that simply won’t work. Suddenly, your friend asks if you looked in the kitchen. Reluctantly and unconvinced, you head into the kitchen only to find the car keys immediately. A different way of looking at a problem can break rigidity and solve longstanding or frustrating problems quickly.

Sharing how experts in multiple disciplines solve difficult, non-routine cases can provide insight, accelerate problem solving and increase innovation. So, how would you do it? An answer lies in adapting a method designed for a slightly different purpose. Klein et al (2013) have developed a simple, but highly effective method of bringing novice frontline workers closer to the levels of experienced frontline workers. The method is particularly relevant to the toughest cases, where formal training and procedures are likely to reach their limit. The authors outline the concept behind their method below

“One way to help trainees develop expertise is to let them see the world through the eyes of experts.  This “expert view” would let trainees discover what experts think is important in a situation, how they focus their attention, and also what they ignore.  It would help trainees broaden their viewpoints and appreciate how subtle events might have important implications” (Klein, Hintze, Saab, 2013).

So, what if the method could be adapted to allow current experts, operating in different disciplines, to see the world through each other’s eyes? If expert engineers could see what expert site managers “think is in important in a situation, how they focus their attention, and also what they ignore”?

Collecting and creating highly challenging problem scenarios, which are designed to test the cognitive limits of experts, can reveal experienced based tacit skills to not only other disciplines, but also to the experts themselves. The results can accelerate problem solving, broaden perspective and boost innovation. And this is a method we have been drawing on, developing and applying in various fields.

Capturing tacit skills can be a challenge, but it can be achieved simply and effectively with the correctly chosen methods (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). We were recently able to share the tacit skills and sense making of experts from multiple disciplines in a clinical environment. Not only did this share tips on how to assess clinical risk from differing perspectives, it also enabled current experts to practically accelerate their risk assessment by learning from other disciplines.

Sometimes, a confounding problem has been solved elsewhere from a different perspective. It’s easy for our experience to sometimes turn against us and compartmentalise our thinking. By having access to the tacit expertise of other disciplines, our thinking can be snapped out of a rigid approach to problem solving and increase the opportunities for professional development and innovation.


Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.

Rugg, G. D’Agnese, J. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us. Harper One

Cooke, N.J. Durso, F. (2008) Stories of Modern Failures and Cognitive Engineering Successes. CRC Press. Taylor and Francis Group. Boca Raton. London. New York.

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: the remarkable ways we gain insight. Public Affairs.

Klein, G. Hintze, N. Saab, D. (2013) Thinking Inside the Box: The ShadowBox Method for Cognitive Skill Development. International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making 2013, Marseille, France.


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