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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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Use Bayesian inference

“When the facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do, sir?”

— John Maynard Keynes

In many situations, we don’t follow Keynes’ approach. In fact, in light of new evidence, we usually don’t update our initial beliefs as much as we should. Bayesian inference can help.

Specifically, Bayesian inference allows you to revise the likelihood of a hypothesis h (the prior) in light of a new item of evidence to get to a posterior. The posterior P(h|d) equals your prior P(h) times the conditional probability of the datum of evidence P(d|h) given the hypothesis divided by the probability of the evidence P(d). That is,

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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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Improve your thinking by mapping it

On January 8 1989, British Midland Airways Boeing 737 was cruising at 28,000 ft when a strong vibration shook the plane. Fumes and a burned smell led the crew to believe that one of the engines was malfunctioning. When they throttled back the right engine, the vibration stopped, so they concluded that the right engine was the problem and they shut it off.

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