Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Can an outsider help solve your problems?


My sister, who knows about these things, tells me that most great innovations happen when someone from one sector/area of expertise moves to a new sector/area of expertise and introduces a new way of dealing with a problem.

Face-palm moment

Face-palm moment

This kind of surprises me – my experience is that when new people arrive in my sector, they quite often make lots of the same mistakes that those of us who have been around for a while have long ago tried and discarded. But my sister’s revelation made me wonder whether this slightly negative attitude towards newbies is doing me harm? Is my snootiness depriving me of lots of valuable opportunities to learn?

The answer is probably yes, but I think ‘outsider’ input into problem solving does need to be well managed. It is possible that someone with a new perspective will identify a fabulous and innovative new way to solve a problem – but there is also a high risk that they will jump to the same naive assumptions that you used to have before you became so jaded I mean… experienced.

So here are my top tips to both sides of equation – and, as usual, my advice is gathered from my own experience of messing this type of thing up!

If you are the highly experienced expert who is getting some ‘outsider’ perspective….

1. Stop being so bloomin’ grumpy! Yes of course you know lots about this and of course the outsider will appear ignorant – but if you can attempt to engage with them enthusiastically – even gratefully – and provide evidence for why certain ideas might not work (rather than rolling your eyes!) you might well get a useful new perspective.

2. Build your credibility as an expert by summarising important bodies of knowedge that you have learnt from – including your own experiences, books, experts, research evidence etc. This will be more helpful and more persuasive that just expecting people to realise that you know best (even if you do!).

3. Don’t be afraid to pinpoint parts of the problem which you already feel well-placed to solve – and other parts where you would welcome some input.

If you are the bright-eyed bushy tailed outsider who has been brought in to advise…

1. Make sure it is clear that you want to listen – this usually reduces people’s resistance. And try to spend as much time understanding what the problem is that people are trying to solve before jumping in with solutions. I find the ‘Action Learning’ approach really useful for forcing you to stop trying to solve a problem before you actually really understand it.

2. Be respectful to people’s knowledge and experience and take the time to listen to how they think the problem should be solved (even if they do seem grumpy!). You may eventually decided to provide constructive challenge to their proposed solutions, but this will never be effective unless you really understand why they are proposing them.

3. Repeatedly  invite the experts to challenge any new ideas you have – and develop a thick skin!


And, just in case none of this works, you may also want to check out this post on dealing with disagreements…!


3 thoughts on “Can an outsider help solve your problems?

  1. There are lots of stereotypes in your post, which though helpful to accentuate the issues, might be considered an unwitting defence of an out-dated status quo. Developing a new type of skin can have its downside – you can’t feel anything any more – like the frogs who quietly wait to boil! I’ve certainly come across all of this as both an insider and outsider – let’s collectively break down the barriers, there’s no benefit in standing your ground simply on principle – in fact the first rule of negotiation is to establish common ground (or walk away – which also sends a message).

  2. I am only going to speak on my experience on the matter. And that’s all it is. It really depends on the culture of the workplace the new person arrives in. If they have an attitude against outsiders etc, it will be counterproductive and reinforce the causes of the original problems. If not, it can create good success.

  3. It’s possible that new folks could, on average, blunder in all the typical ways, AND (at the same time) that most big innovations will come from those new folks and their new-fangled ways of thinking. In fact, inexperienced people might well be worse than experience people on average, and still have that same effect.

    One sort-of relevant example is bringing RCTs from medicine/biostats into economics. A lot of older economists were against them for many good reasons, but a few young (and now prominent and not quite as young) researchers brought in this new technique – though technically they’re not outsiders – and popularized it, and in the process of popularizing it brushed aside many of the critiques of those older economists (which were correct, but not necessarily not a reason to do RCTs at all), and just by showing they could be done in economics popularized the method, which overcame one of the big hurdles for not doing such studies in the first place (funding). So the innovation sort of had to come from relatively young pseudo-outsiders who ignored the advice of more established researchers.

Leave a Reply (go on, you know you want to...)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s