More and more people today rely on a deep level of knowledge in a narrow topic—aka subject matter expertise—for their livelihoods. I probably fall into that category, so I began wondering: can that kind of special knowledge actually get in the way when it comes to creativity and innovation? The short answer is yes, and reason is that special subject matter expertise is really the mother of all mindsets.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And one of my favorite Dilbert cartoon strips depicts a meeting in which a problem is presented, and each attendee around the table suggests a solution that just happens to match their personal “hammer.” In the final panel, a porcupine sitting at the end of the meeting table declares, “We must stick them with quills! It’s the only way!!”
But how can knowledge be bad? Aren’t the experts in a given area the ones who are supposed to have all the sophisticated solutions?
Dr. Stellan Ohlsson, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, thinks that deep but narrow bands of knowledge can leave us blind to other options. According to Ohlsson, when we’re faced with a problem or challenge, we tend to view it through the lens of our special knowledge and create a mental image of it based on that. But that can block our ability to see the problem in a new or different way and prevent us from considering other alternatives. We go round and round the problem, locked into our old ways of thinking, getting nowhere.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Jennifer Wiley conducted an interesting experiment designed to point out how knowledge can get in the way of creative thinking. Wiley took a group of baseball experts and a group with no special knowledge of the game. She gave both groups three words: plate, rest, and broken. The goal was to find a common word that linked all three ideas together. Wiley was targeting the word home, and indeed the baseball experts came up with home plate, a baseball term, along with rest home, and broken home quicker than the nonexperts.
But then, in a second test, she changed one word in the trio, producing plate, shot, and broken. She was targeting the word glass, as in plate glass, shot glass, and broken glass. The baseball experts didn’t do nearly as well as the nonexperts. Wiley believed that their knowledge of baseball caused them to lock on to home plate, and made it much harder to break free of the concept.
Does this mean that the person with the least knowledge about the problem is the person most likely to solve it? No, that’s not the case either. It was physicist Albert Einstein who discovered relativity, not Mae West. In fact, Einstein experienced the very frustration Ohlsson describes. Subject matter expertise is required. On the one hand, it allows us to think productively, efficiently, and logically. On the other hand, it can limit our ability to think expansively and objectively, in turn handicapping our creative problem-solving capability.
How do we then move beyond the limitations of our mindset to improve that ability? Harvard University’s Chris Argyris set out to address this very issue, of what he and MIT’s Peter Senge called “mental models.” Argyris developed something he called “action science,” and used some simple tools to teach people to see the flaws in their mindsets. One of those tools is called the “Left-Hand Column.”
In the exercise, Argyris has you reconstruct a difficult conversation, one in which defensive feelings arose. (Email strings are GREAT for this exercise, because you don’t need to reconstruct anything.) A line is drawn down a sheet paper, with the right-hand side used to write down what was actually said by both parties. In the left-hand column, you write down what you were really thinking and feeling, but not saying. The left side is evidence of your unique perspective, and a means by which you can deconstruct your hidden mindset.
By doing this, Argyris says, you will become more conscious of the effects of your individual pattern of thinking; in turn, expanding your thought process. In other words, the Left-Hand Column can help you can manage your mindset. You know you’re it’s working when both columns match.
You may want to try this the next time you get into one of those heated email exchanges in which you are fairly certain the other person is an crazy alien from a distant galaxy, clearly off base, and just not getting it. What's interesting in these cases is when you show the email string to others, they generally shrug, unable to see why you’re so upset.
That’s because they don’t share your mindset...their minds are set differently. And that’s a good thing, because as General George Patton said, “ If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
Matthew E. May is an innovation consultant and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. He blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.