When In-House Problem-Solvers Trump Outside Experts

We live in a world that in many ways is growing more challenging by the day. Solving complex problems is no longer only about brainpower. It’s also about orchestrating high-speed, high-quality decisions between and among people so they can sense, absorb and think—in real time—as a group.

That’s the view of David Benjamin and David Komlos, authors of Cracking Complexity: The Breakthrough Formula for Solving Just About Anything Fast.

In a continuation of my conversation with them (see “Wouldn’t You Like To Solve Just About Anything Fast?”), Benjamin and Komlos offer ideas on how leaders and their organizations can improve their problem-solving skills.

Rodger Dean Duncan: You suggest that, to address a challenge, it’s typically better to assemble a group of in-house people than to bring in outside “experts.” Why?

David Komlos: To successfully address big challenges, you must match the complexity with a diversity of talent comprised of both in-house people and external experts and stakeholders. Depending on the challenge, 70% to 100% of those convened should be internal to the organization. They are the ones who will ultimately need to execute, so you want them playing central roles in co-creating solutions. The most common mistake is to either wholly outsource the thinking to experts and consultants or, on the other hand, to do the solving solely with internal talent when you should have filled important gaps in expertise or perspective by including a few outsiders. Neither approach can match the many dimensions of these challenges. Special-purpose groups intentionally skewed to internal representation give you the best of both worlds—internal knowledge, experience, relationship, influence, and ability to execute, all informed, challenged, and supported by external expertise and perspective.

Duncan: What criteria should be used in mobilizing the kind of in-house team you recommend?

David Benjamin: The term “requisite variety” best sums up whom you’re looking to convene in order to solve a complex problem—the necessary and sufficient variety of people to match the variety of the problem. Think through—

1. The map of your organization. This covers your in-house operations, geographies, hierarchical levels, its supply chain and key partnerships, its field personnel, and its markets. Specifically, in the context of the challenge, it also includes those directly impacted by the challenge, those with relevant experiences or specialist know-how, and those who will ultimately own and execute solutions. Think of these as zones that might need to be covered in the composition of the team.

2. The human beings who make up the team—their personalities, thinking styles, demographics, attitudes, stake, histories, specialty knowledge, authority and influence. These are the characteristics to cover.

Be selective about the zones and the characteristics that you prioritize for coverage in your group, and in how you seek out specific individuals who collectively cover those aspects as efficiently as possible.

For example, you can cover several aspects by including a senior executive from Europe who is an INTJ [a rare psychological type on the Myers-Briggs assessment], who used to work for one of your customers, spent her early career in customer service, and who happens to be an expert in change management. That one person can be worth five others who would be necessary to achieve that same coverage without her.

It’s important to emphasize that the “in-house” team is likely most, but not all, of the variety you need to include. A few carefully-selected outside voices, whether they are customers or partners or consultants or futurists, may be absolutely necessary in terms of how they will both challenge and stimulate your in-house group to achieve results that aren’t otherwise possible.

Duncan: What are some good ways for leaders—and their organizations—to become adept at using the problem-solving formula you recommend?

Komlos: Those who have decided to become truly adept at the formula have embedded it into their organization’s planning processes, transformation efforts, key account management and joint venture activities, and their agile, lean and innovation practices. They enrich those practices with the formula at points where successfully tapping into the talent of many people, aligning and mobilizing them faster represents a real lift.

For those who don’t want to go as far but want to make use of the key elements of the formula, start by making it a habit to bucket your challenges as complicated or complex. Express every top challenge as a question. Accompany every question with a list of internal and external people whose combined knowledge, talent, and influence are necessary to solve the challenge and execute. Practice assigning speaking roles in all problem-solving meetings—we use member (speak freely), critic (critique), observer (only listen)—to optimize group dynamics.

Build iteration into your problem-solving processes—so that you’re giving people time to revisit key topics at least twice. Arrange people across topics in ways that ensure everyone is “colliding” with everyone else, not just a subset of the group. For large groups, we use algorithms to engineer these collisions.

Duncan: If there is one main takeaway about the formula, what is it and why should people care?

Komlos: The formula is a step-by-step ‘how-to.’ The key takeaway, though, is more macro. Solving and change, in contrast to what we’ve been conditioned to believe, can be incredibly fast.

The key is to have a talent-is-abundant mindset, involve more people rather than fewer, and routinely engineer a very high volume of high-quality interactions between them. When people collide in the right way, great things happen. And because complex challenges are always the defining challenges, leaders who master complexity differentiate themselves and their organizations. It’s happening every day around the globe on top challenges, and the know-how and toolset is mature and available.

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