“Have the breadth to see the problems, and the depth to solve them.”

— Anonymous (as reported in Tomorrow’s Professor by Richard Reis)

Think of problem solving as the combination of divergent and convergent thinking. When answering a ‘how can we do this’ question, you should first consider various alternatives. That’s the divergent part, where you strive to consider all possible ways to answer the question.

Then you look at each alternative in detail, and test the one(s) that you think will work. That’s the convergent part.

So if you think of your (or your team’s) expertise, you can visualize it as a T, where the horizontal bar cuts across knowledge areas—and helps you diverge—while the vertical bar symbolizes how much you know about a specific subject, which helps you converge.

The horizontal bar of the T helps you diverge, the vertical helps you converge

First, diverge better by getting out of your knowledge area

When looking for innovative solutions to a problem, it helps to step back and, maybe, borrow ideas from elsewhere.

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

– Henry Ford (well, perhaps)

The problem with experts is that they are conditioned to think into a specific way; i.e. the more we specialize in something, the more difficult it is for us to ask ‘silly’ questions (for more on this, see here). But when exploring various ways to solve a problem, you want people to ask silly questions because those help trigger innovation.

Then, rely on experts to see if the solution(s) you picked will work

Once you’ve considered various alternatives, you need to focus on the one(s) that you think have a chance to fly. This is where experts come in handy. At this stage, if all you have is a bunch of novices, they’ll have to recreate the wheel, whereas experts will fast-track you to determining whether you can solve your problem with your proposed approach.

 As a team manager, think about how you acquire these skills

As a team leader, you must think about your team’s collective T. Think of your current one; is it broad enough? Is it deep enough? If not, how are you going to make it right?

Will you want to have a few team members that are experts and the other ones that know about a lot of different fields, or will you prefer for everyone to be equally good on both dimensions of their T?

While it might be complicated to have a team whose members are all good at divergent and convergent thinking, if you don’t, you risk to have a disconnect between the two parts of your team. How will you address that?

And further than just the knowledge of your individual team  members, you also need to take a long, hard look at whether you have the right culture when it comes to knowledge sharing.

A particular thing to keep in mind, as reported by a recent report from the National Research Council, is that effective teams have transactive memory: the team members know who knows what and can engage these people when needs be, thereby making the team’s collective expertise theirs.

In the end, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all-organizations approach to this; you need to think about what will work for you. What does matter, though, is that your team has both dimensions.

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