Friday, March 5, 2010

Solving Problems by Knowing Less

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts."
~ Richard Feynman

One of the brainy science people I follow on Twitter recently posted a link to an interesting talk by neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer. The forum was last October's PopTech 2009, one of those gatherings where smart people from different fields (who do not run our world but probably should) meet to share their insights.

In a talk that ranged from Thorstein Veblen to Albert Einstein to General Motors, Lehrer focused on the value of being an outsider — of seeing a problem with fresh eyes. As he noted and more and more organizations are discovering, outsiders are often the only people who can solve stubborn conundrums.

Lehrer cites the example of, a Web site that functions as the go-to help center for large organizations when they run into particularly tough, solution-resistant problems.

As this screen shot indicates, companies — even NASA — post their problems on InnoCentive, along with a substantial cash reward and a deadline. And as it turns out, when problems are solved, the solution tends to come not from an expert in the specific field but from a scientist with related but different knowledge. It's a brief talk, only 10 minutes or so, and worth watching. See it here.

While I was listening to Lehrer's PopTech talk, I was reminded of an article he wrote in the January 2010 issue of Wired"Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up." The topic was how to tell a laboratory "error" from an unexpected breakthrough. The best approach: get a diverse group of people to review the problem. (If you're feeling deja vu all over again, note that Divinipotent Daily wrote about this in early January.)

Lehrer and InnoCentive are obviously not the first to discover the value of putting fresh eyes on a problem. It's something most of us know intuitively. I will always remember the shock of attending my first few meetings in a conference room at a large corporation. Having spent my career until then in unconventional entrepreneurial companies, I immediately realized that almost nothing was ever accomplished until the big dogs left the room. The meetings were colossal time-wasters, but the people in charge — the so-called experts — never questioned whether this was really the way to get things done.

If you'd like to learn more about solving problems by knowing less, Harvard has a working paper, "The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving," available for download (free) here. 

"Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it."
~ Robert Heinlein

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