Operations: Overcoming the Expert Problem in Problem Solving

by Dan White

For many casino operators, problem solving is an ongoing part of daily life. Problems large and small consume time, effort, and other precious resources. The ability to improve problem solving has the potential to improve outcomes and results. Often, we turn to experts when facing the most critical problems.

Expertise is a widely sought trait, and for good reason. Expertise is generally the result of intentional practice, experience and skill built on years of learning and empirical observations. Experts, in many cases, have been exposed to a wide range of scenarios, circumstances and problems. This experience is certainly helpful when it comes to problem solving but is not perfect. In fact, in some instances, expertise may impair problem solving.

This is a blind spot that can emerge under the right circumstance. While this blind spot takes many forms, it is embedded in the notion that previous experiences fuel future decisions. Considering experts tend to have more experience, they may be more likely to fall into this type of trap.

There are several varieties of this cognitive error, which are outlined below. It is important to note that in many instances, errors of this nature do not create a negative outcome. For some problems, the prior experience and current problem align well enough that no effect is observed, and problems can be solved efficiently without error. But that belies the underlying danger – we don’t know which problems are which or when prior experience may interfere with finding the right solution.

Mental Set. A mental set is the tendency to only consider solutions that have worked in the past, possibly without considering better options. While this may come in handy in many situations, it can narrow our view in a way that stifles innovation and creativity regarding problem solving.

Negative Transfer. Negative transfers can occur when we are presented with new situations and apply familiar but perhaps not relevant (or even incorrect) knowledge. In this case we are transferring old knowledge to new situations in which the old knowledge may increase the rate of error for the problem we are trying to solve.

Functional Fixedness. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias in which people tend to focus on familiar functions of objects (or perhaps concepts and strategies as well) and may limit use of such objects to that purpose. This may become an issue when we fail to consider other ways to utilize such objects when solving problems. The opposite of functional fixedness is cognitive flexibility (the ability to rapidly innovate).

There is another term used in psychology to describe these types of errors – the Einstellung effect. The Einstellung effect is the brain’s tendency to rely on solutions it already knows instead of seeking (possibly) superior ones.

One notable study that illustrates this effect included a group of master chess players. The players were presented with a board and asked to find the quickest path to victory. There was a five-move solution that was well known to most advanced chess players, and a three-move solution, which was more obscure. The experienced and highly skilled players consistently utilized the five-move solution and in most cases did not even attempt to find the more successful three-move solution.

This highlights the underlying effect of this type of cognitive error – we may stick with a familiar solution (or the first solution that comes to mind) without considering that there are better or more innovative solutions available. Experts may be more inclined to fall into this trap due to their experience and knowledge.

The problem may be that expertise is built through repeated exposure to situations that have helped build a depth of knowledge about a particular domain and while this expertise and knowledge may have been effective at helping solve problems in the past it is erroneous to believe the same expertise will help solve problems in the future. We may be too quick to conclude that problem B is the same as problem A and apply the same solution. In this way, the problem is oversimplified or “reduced” to a form that is more manageable and familiar. The risk, of course, is that the two problems may have very little in common outside some superficial elements.

Similarities (even superficial ones) can have oversized influence. Our tendency is to categorize and compartmentalize information. It is tidy and clean and conserves mental effort and energy. This may simply be how our minds are wired and without significant effort, becomes the natural resting state of thought.

What can we do to mitigate these effects? There are several steps we can take to help reduce errors associated with the Einstellung effect and related cognitive errors.

Interleaving. Interleaving is a learning process that mixes multiple topics while studying to help improve learning. Students jump in and out of practicing a variety of concepts and skills and increase retention. But it can also apply to problem solving. Creating intentional distraction or disruption to the process can provide space and reflection. Interleaving also forces us to reengage our mind when we return to a problem, increasing the opportunity that we may see it in a new light or find a new path to a solution.

Question Storming. Question storming has gained popularity in recent years as a substitute for brain storming. When we brainstorm, we are focused on creating ideas with the hope that one or more of those ideas may evolve into something meaningful and useful. Question storming replaces ideas with questions. The process begins with a statement or problem (plainly stated). The group then spends 15 minutes generating as many questions as possible (ideas and solutions are not allowed).

Question storming is effective because it can reveal misguided assumptions or frame problems in a whole new way. This may be particularly useful if we tend to routinely approach problems in a similar manner.

Practiced Skepticism. Skepticism, in this case, can be defined as a mindset in which we accept (and even embrace) uncertainty in knowledge (particularly our own knowledge). Many of the problems identified above emerge because of a tendency to prematurely arrive at conclusions based on pre-existing knowledge or assumptions. Infusing skepticism into our thinking can help insulate us to these types of errors. Understanding that our knowledge is, in some cases, limited, fragmented or inaccurate is a healthy approach to problem solving and can reduce errors.

Ultimately, a measure of skepticism imbues our thinking with greater humility. Expertise is undoubtedly a valuable attribute, particularly for casino operators. But much like our knowledge, it has limitations. Recognizing how prior experience and knowledge may not predict future outcomes is the foundation in which we can mitigate the expert problem. The result is stronger solutions, and more importantly, better outcomes.

Dan White is the owner of Dan White & Associates, a casino marketing and strategy consulting firm. He can be reached by calling (360) 890-1433 or email [email protected].