An innovation system should preserve range and inefficiency, concludes the book Range—Why generalists triumph in a specialized world, by David Epstein. Focusing deep yields efficiencies and incremental innovation. But a broad base of learning and experience can produce radical innovation. Many (most?) of our research and education practices are designed for ‘kind’ environments where the rules and parameters are relatively clear. Playing chess is one example. But the world, and most fields of human endeavour are complex, or ‘wicked’. “In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both.” When faced with new and complex challenges, we cannot rely on learning from experience, as we have none.
The challenge in our complex world is to think broadly and learn without experience — “conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts”. Epstein writes that, “… the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity”.
Too often, formal education encourage students to get the answers quickly. They try to make up easy-to-use rules, which are often wrong. “They [students] were trying to turn a conceptual problem they didn’t understand into a procedural one they could just execute … In the United States, about one-fifth of questions posed to students began as making-connections problems. By the time the students were done soliciting hints from the teacher and solving problems, a grand total of zero percent remained making-connections problems.”
The research Epstein cites shows that “learning is most efficient in the long run when it is inefficient in the short run”. Most education and training courses “produce misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery that will not survive the passage of substantial periods of time”. For example, giving hints while learning undermines progress in the long run. But people like to see early results, from parents and teachers to the learners themselves.
What does work is — interleaving. Another powerful approach for solving complex and wicked problems is ‘deep analogical thinking — “the practice of recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domain or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface.” This type of thinking enabled Johannes Kepler in 1596 to invent astrophysics, with “no concept of gravity as a force, and … no notion of momentum that keeps the planets in motion”. This is the power of analogous thinking.
Analogous thinking can make for great research teams. Psychologist Kevin Dunbar noted that the most successful research labs were those composed of people from diverse backgrounds with a wide variety of experience and interests. “The more unusual the challenge, the more distant the analogies, moving away from surface similarities and toward deep structural similarities.”
The advantage we have in the internet era is that we have almost unlimited access to specialized knowledge. We can get facts and data quickly. Making connections becomes the critical skill set. Broad experience and interests, coupled with a diverse professional network, can be a competitive advantage in any field. For example, the most successful comic book creators are those with the broadest experience, having written for multiple genres. In wicked environments, such as creative writing, specialization can be deadly. However, in kinder environments, like surgery, you would do better with a deep specialist.
“Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable. Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their experience in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous.”
Curiosity is also a key determinant in learning and solving wicked problems. Curious people always choose to look at new evidence, even if it does not agree with their current beliefs. This open-mindedness is more difficult in areas where we have deep experience and knowledge. We become comfortable with our ideas. Psychologist Karl Weick coined the phrase ‘dropping one’s tools’, from observations of wildland firefighters who died while trying to outrun a fire — they did not drop the tools of their profession, and were therefore too slow. Dropping your tools, like your mental models, takes significant mental effort. But it might save your life.
Diversity is the key to learning and creativity, and overall success in pretty well all fields of work. Successful professional networks allow for easy movement of individuals, porous departmental boundaries, and cross-disciplinary cooperation. It’s all about ‘range and inefficiency’.
Thanks to Cathryn Barnard for recommending this book, one of my better reads this year.