Have you ever worked with someone who’s brilliant in their field, however has been completely unable to find and develop creative solutions to problems? It could be a brilliant surgeon who’s been promoted into a leadership role and is stumped by administrative problems, or a cook trying to prepare a meal using ingredients they’re unfamiliar with, or an engineer trying to understand why HR turnover data was unreliable in their civil construction project. Cross-domain problem solving is a widely studied phenomenon, and what you may have witnessed is the Einstellung effect.
The Einstellung effect describes a phenomenon whereby people solve problems in a particular manner despite there being better or more efficient methods of problem solving options available. Colloquially you hear phrases such as ‘to a hammer everything looks like a nail” to explain this phenomenon. One of the known problems with single-domain expertise, or specialisations, is that particular methodologies and techniques are taught, practised and mastered to solve problems, and these experts or specialists then have trouble utilising other techniques when it’s appropriate to do so. This is particularly the case in cross-domain problem solving scenarios (such as the surgeon being promoted into medical administration) or where the problem exists in the wicked domain (Sage | PDF) where many of these cross-domain problems exist.
This is not an argument against specialisation and expertise, experts always have their place. Tiger Woods, the golfer, and Sofia Polgar, the chess player, are great examples of single-domain experts who’ve been highly successful (and are two particularly good examples as their single domain expertise was purposefully designed from early childhood). However where experts and specialists fall down is when they are working on problems within the wicked domain. My professional field, Human Resources, is a good example of such a wicked domain as it involves strong mismatches between information acquisition (learning) and its application (predictions and choices). Specialists exist within Human Resources however Human Resources in the 21st Century is becoming defined by the Full Stack Human Resources practitioner – someone who is subsequently able to draw on a pool of technical, human resources domain-related skills to collaboratively solve people-related problems, and identify people-related opportunities, across their Company’s operations.