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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.

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Be a generalist / strategic thinker as well as a specialist

Effective problem solvers have both deep and broad knowledge. Depth of knowledge usually isn’t the problem, because it is the central component of many formal training programs. However, most of us don’t receive much training on developing the broad, transferable or generalist skills that make us good strategic thinkers. So you need to take the matter in your own hands.

This is an excerpt of my post on MIT Sloan Executive Education’s innovation@work Blog. I’ve also included below an expanded list of resources.

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Leverage analogies

Using analogies can help you approach new, unfamiliar problems creatively, but they can also be constraining. To sidestep this limitation, understand your assumptions and look for alternative analogies.

Analogies can help you approach unfamiliar problems

Facing an unfamiliar problem, using an analogy (or its close cousin, the metaphor) can help you make progress. For instance, consider the obesity problem and society’s inability to cure it. Yale’s David Katz has recently suggested to treat health as wealth and obesity as drowning. This helps open the door to health management (we don’t spend our entire wealth in one go, neither should we destroy our health capital) and a different approach to managing obesity, not as a disease that needs to be treated but as something that requires prevention.

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Manage your confirmation bias

Confirmation bias—seeking and interpreting evidence partially so as to support one’s beliefs—is so destructive that it can render your analysis useless. And chances are, you are a victim of it.

Raymond Nickerson, a psychology professor at Tufts University, found evidence of confirmation bias in a number of disciplines. (His 1998 paper published in the Review of General Psychology is both enlightening and sobering: citing hundreds of sources, he makes a compelling argument that confirmation bias is everywhere.)

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Frame it right

Chances are, you are solving the wrong problem.

Nothing personal, dear reader, as I wholeheartedly trust your instincts and impeccable judgement, but it happens to the best of us.

We all solve the wrong problem

Case in point: I’ve coached over 200 people to solve complex problems in the past five years. Not a single one decided, after thinking for a couple of weeks about the problem they brought, that their original formulation was the right one. Not one.

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