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Beyond Expertise: From Thinking Outside the Box to Outside the Domain

How your lab will benefit from fostering divergent thinking in staff

Sean Grace

Sean Grace is a communication consultant, coach, speaker, and author of the upcoming book "The Art of the Question: A Guide for Seekers, Dreamers, Problem Solvers, and Leaders." With over...

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Several years ago, in Argentina, a car mechanic came upon a YouTube video demonstrating a clever trick to extract a loose cork from inside an empty wine bottle. The YouTuber stuffed a plastic bag inside the bottle with the bag’s opening accessible at the top. He tilted the bottle to position the cork accordingly, blew into the bag, clenched the opening to prevent leakage, and then gently pulled the bag out of the bottle along with the cork. After watching the video, Jorge Odon, the car mechanic, had an epiphany: "Could this concept be applied in obstructed childbirths?" Soon after, Odon spoke with an obstetrician who encouraged him to pursue the idea. The “Odon Device” is now being used worldwide to assist in difficult deliveries, saving the lives of countless babies and mothers. In an interview with The New York Times, Mario Merialdi, PhD, then chief medic at the World Health Organization, stated, “An obstetrician would have tried to improve the forceps or the vacuum extractor, but obstructed labor needed a mechanic.”1

Cultivating a more divergent mind to tackle navel problems first requires understanding the 'essence' of the problem.

Kevin Dunbar, PhD, a researcher from McGill University in Montreal, wanted to better understand problem-solving in scientific teams.2 He followed several labs over a one-year period, attending their weekly lab meetings while quietly observing and taking notes. On one particular occasion, he observed one of the labs struggling with a vexing problem: proteins were continually getting stuck in a filter, thwarting their ability to conduct reliable analyses. As they brainstormed and debated, they failed to solve the problem. Dunbar was fascinated because he had recently witnessed the exact same problem in a different lab solved within a single lab meeting. Because of his agreement to only observe and not interfere in any of his subject labs, he sat through several weeks of meetings before the lab came up with a viable solution. Dunbar wondered, “What was different between these two lab teams that it took lab A a single hour, whereas lab B took several weeks?” After reviewing his copious notes, he discovered that lab A was staffed with a variety of specialists – biologists, geneticists, medical students, and engineers, while lab B was staffed with only E. coli specialists. Dunbar concluded that the diversity of expertise and experience in lab A allowed for more divergent thinking, which quickly led to an innovative solution.

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The protein filter challenge for lab B illustrates what cognitive psychologists term the Einstellung Effect. Einstellung means “setting” or “attitude” in German. The term originated with Gestalt psychologists Abraham and Edith Luchins, who derived it from an experiment in 1942 involving puzzles, where they noticed how subjects tended to re-use the same strategies even as the conditions and variables changed. The phenomenon refers to the automatic predisposition to solve problems in a specific, familiar, mechanized way, often as a negative consequence of past experience. lab A’s team comprised individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences, enabling them to pull ideas from a wide array of disciplines, swiftly innovating a unique solution. Conversely, lab B lacked diversity of experience; their team was highly specialized in E. coli, limiting their problem-solving capabilities to their singular expertise. Jorge Odon was a car mechanic, not an obstetrician or medical device engineer, yet he was able to envision a solution to a problem completely outside his realm of experience or expertise by using analogy and divergent thinking. He approached the problem with fresh eyes by asking the hypothetical question, “What if the bottle were a birth canal, and the cork were a baby?”

Lab managers are uniquely challenged when attempting to foster a culture of divergent thinking within their labs. They are tasked with managing a team of highly focused specialists, often with similar experiences and expertise.

Lab managers are uniquely challenged when attempting to foster a culture of divergent thinking within their labs. They are tasked with managing a team of highly focused specialists, often with similar experiences and expertise. This concentration of knowledge and experience can limit the team’s creativity in solving complex problems, falling victim to the Einstellung Effect, as seen with lab B’s E. coli experts. lab A had the advantage of pooling a wide range of ideas from their team’s inherent diversity. But divergent thinking is more a mindset than a result of diverse individuals within a team. Jorge Odon demonstrated his divergent mindset by creating analogs to the bottle and cork. He used his experience as a mechanic to imagine how this simple technique could be applied to a similar problem—in this case, delivering a large baby through a narrow birth canal. Odon wasn’t just thinking outside the box; he was thinking outside his domain.

Divergent thinking requires the use of analogies to reveal connections and commonalities across unrelated fields and disciplines. While analogies represent the general similarities between two things, metaphors are specific figures of speech used to describe these analogies. The sixteenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler is famous for his use of analogies and metaphors to decipher the movements of planets. He struggled to understand why planets farther from the sun moved more slowly than those closer to it. His analogy, “What if planets were rowboats trapped in a circular current on a river, rotating around a central whirlpool?” using the metaphor of boats as planets helped explain the singular direction of the planets’ orbits as well as their speed; the “boats” closer to the center moved more quickly, while those farther from the center moved more slowly. Each set of metaphors created new analogies, such as heat, light, magnets, and sweeping brooms, all of which gradually led him to his insights about the nature of our solar system. Without his divergent and analogical thinking, with its continual and iterative use of metaphors and analogies, Kepler likely would not have made his groundbreaking discoveries.

Cultivating a more divergent mind to tackle novel problems first requires understanding the “essence” of the problem. Jorge Odon recognized the essence of the bottle and cork problem as obstruction, that is, extracting large objects through narrow openings. This allowed him to uncouple the essence from the problem in the YouTube video from its essence and apply that essence to other situations. Lab A was able to more easily uncover the essence of the protein filter problem by virtue of the diversity of experience within the team. Lab B was stuck in their “functional fixedness” and was unable to see beyond the first-order nature of the problem: protein molecules sticking to a filter.

These concepts—divergent and analogical thinking, metaphors, and essence—are the basis for innovation and creative problem-solving. More organizations are seeking new hires who encompass these characteristics, whom some have termed “T-shaped”’ people. These individuals possess deep expertise in one discipline along with a wide range of experiences and/or interests outside their primary domain. This idea was explored in journalist and author David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Epstein discusses several studies showing how T-shaped individuals and teams are better at solving complex and novel problems. Lab A was T-shaped, allowing it access to a wide range of solutions, while lab B was I-shaped, limiting its problem-solving to known experiences. As a lab manager, you may not always have the luxury of hiring diverse, T-shaped individuals, but you do have the ability to cultivate a team that can, as a whole, become more T-shaped.

Developing divergent thinking across a team requires practice and a culture that encourages not just outside-the-box thinking, but outside-the-domain thinking. This shift in culture necessitates new kinds of questions being asked and new habits of mind being formed. We’ll explore some of those questions and habits in the next issue.



Links to iStock accounts from which components for header image were sourced:

xorosho, svetabelaya, michel74100