February 11, 2015

Borrow ideas from other disciplines

“Problem solving in medicine is not the same as in military” or so the thinking goes. Of course, there are obvious differences and these differences call for specialized training. But there are also common denominators, and it’s to your benefit to recognize when you can borrow ideas from other disciplines.

Refrain from defining your problems too narrowly

Domenico Grasso, the provost of the University of Delaware, uses the story of how the city of Stockholm addressed its traffic congestion to make a compelling case for not framing problems too narrowly. Stockholm spans 14 islands and relies on 57 bridges to connect them. When it faced high congestion ten years ago, administrators considered solutions. Framing the problem traditionally—i.e., enlisting engineers trained to think in engineering ways—would probably have resulted in a traditional solution: building another bridge. Instead, the city framed the problem on a larger topic, that of capacity.

Indeed, congestion can be solved by increasing supply or reducing demand. So they implemented a “tax and drive” system with transponders installed in the users’ cars that charged more at rush hour. Within four weeks, the system removed 100,000 vehicles at rush hours and reduced travel times. This came at a fraction of the time or cost needed for a traditional engineering solution.

The take away is that you may be an engineer by training, which means that you’ve been trained to use engineering tools to solve engineering problems. But it doesn’t mean that you should see all problems as engineering problems. In fact, you should cultivate the horizontal bar of your t-shaped training so that it is broad enough to enable you to borrow from other fields.

Borrow ideas from other disciplines to boost your innovation

In universities, it is common for professors to favor approaches that are specific to their disciplines. There is no problem with that as long as this doesn’t translate to students learning only approaches specific to their disciplines as, indeed, you may benefit from borrowing from other ones.

Consider two examples of practices that were learned from other disciplines: checklists first appeared in airplane cockpits and are now being increasingly used in operating rooms. Despite strong initial resistance by surgeons, their adoption has led to significant reductions in post-operational complications (see Gawande).

Similarly, medical practices are also adopted by other disciplines: the rise in the 1990s of evidence-based medicine—the reliance on evidence from well-designed and conducted research to guide decision making—has helped create a practice of evidence-based management in the last decade (see Pfeffer, Rousseau).

Some organizations are now actively encouraging their constituents to borrow ideas from other fields. The Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, is now fostering collaboration between the  healthcare, oil & gas, and aerospace industries to boost innovation. They call it “the other guy’s toolbox” (see Orlando). Far from suffering from the “not invented here” syndrome, they push in the other direction:

“The idea is to stop thinking within the constraints of your protected field and start communicating,” said Alan B. Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center.

Embrace that medical and military problem solving have similarities

As for medical problem-solving being necessarily different than military one, there is evidence of the contrary in Duncker’s radiation problem (see Duncker, Bassok). The problem reads as such: how can we use rays to destroy a patient’s stomach tumor without harming the neighboring healthy tissues?

One solution is to use multiple low-intensity rays from different sources around the patient that converge on the tumor. As it happens, students who read a military analogy (attacking a fortress in a countryside protected by minefields that let small groups of men through but not an entire army) are significantly better at finding the solution (see Gick).

So perhaps it is worth it letting go of artificial silos when they don’t make sense and borrow ideas from other disciplines?


Stockholm’s congestion:

Eliasson, J., et al. (2009). “The Stockholm congestion–charging trial 2006: Overview of effects.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 43(3): 240-250.

Eliasson, J. (2009). “A cost–benefit analysis of the Stockholm congestion charging system.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 43(4): 468-480.

Grasso, D. and D. Martinelli (2010). Holistic engineering. Holistic Engineering Education. D. Grasso and M. Brown Burkins, Springer: 11-15.

Grasso, D. and D. Martinelli (2007). Holistic Engineering. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Stealing from other domains:

Gawande, A. (2009). The Checklist Manifesto. New York, Picador.

Orlando, A. (2015). The other guy’s toolkit. Texas Medical Center News. Houston.

Evidence-based practice:

Pfeffer, J. and R. I. Sutton (2006). “Evidence-based management.” Harvard business review 84(1): 62.

Pfeffer, J. and R. I. Sutton (2006). Hard facts, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense: Profiting from evidence-based management, Harvard Business Press.

Pfeffer, J. and R. I. Sutton (2007). “Suppose We Took Evidence-Based Management Seriously: Implications for Reading and Writing Management.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 6(1): 153-155.

Rousseau, D. M. (2006). “Is there such a thing as “evidence-based management”?” Academy of Management Review 31(2): 256-269.

Rousseau, D. M. (2012). The Oxford handbook of evidence-based management. New York.

Radiation problem:

Bassok, M. and L. R. Novick (2012). Problem solving. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. K. J. Holyoak and R. G. Morrison. New York, Oxford University Press: 413-432.

Duncker, K. and L. S. Lees (1945). “On problem-solving.” Psychological monographs 58(5): i.

Gick, M. L. and K. J. Holyoak (1980). “Analogical problem solving.” Cognitive psychology 12(3): 306-355.