What do you do when you feel stuck on a problem? Often asking a friend or family member for a pair of fresh eyes ends up being the best way to solve your issue. Even just explaining the problem out loud can help you generate new possible solutions.
The same is true at work: When you and your colleagues are feeling stumped about what to do, bringing in someone new to the organization can often be just the thing you need. While that new employee might stumble on a creative solution that has eluded everyone else, they are more likely to provide a great catalyst for generating new solutions. There are three reasons why:
THEY DON’T SHARE ASSUMPTIONS
Part of what makes new employees valuable in problem solving is actually what makes it harder to work with them in general as they get acclimated to their new workplace. They just don’t share the assumptions and culture of the organization with everyone else. That can make it hard to explain things to new people. They don’t know how or why things are done the way they are.
While that slows down work in many normal circumstances, it’s a benefit when there are hard problems to be solved. New employees will end up asking a lot of questions about why things are done the way they are. Those questions can be quite helpful for several reasons. They can bring to the surface disagreements among team members about core assumptions that are only identified because people are forced to articulate the reasons why they believe things are done.
In addition, those questions reveal situations in which the initial reason why a procedure was put in place no longer holds. These questions can also bring to light cases where people were sure they know why things were done as they are, and only realize the gap in their knowledge when asked to explain it.
Once the team becomes aware of faulty assumptions, it becomes easier to rethink a problem. For one thing, you may discover that some of the apparent tradeoffs in a problem are more apparent than real. For another, it may be easier to change the default ways of doing things after really understanding the reasons why they are done now.
THEY HAVE DIFFERENT KNOWLEDGE
New employees also bring a different base of knowledge than the one that has been applied to the problem so far. Even if describing the problem doesn’t change anyone’s view of what needs to be solved, this new knowledge has value. New employees should be encouraged to suggest things they know that seem related to the problem.
It is unlikely that the new employee is just going to nail the solution with their outside perspective—particularly if they are young or new to the industry. For this reason, a new employee is unlikely to want to contribute their thoughts. They might even believe that the team will look down on them for their naïve approach.
However, the recommendations they make will trigger new thoughts in the entire team. Applying this new perspective to the problem will shift everyone out of the current way of approaching it, which is then likely to lead to new insights. That means it is important to be clear that the conversations created by the new employee’s suggestions will be valuable, regardless of whether they make a specific contribution that solves the problem.
THEY USE DIFFERENT LANGUAGE
New employees also haven’t learned all the local jargon. Every organization has acronyms for units and procedures and other words that refer to particular individuals, clients, or processes. Those words carry a lot of assumptions with them that become part of the shared culture of everyone on the team.
Because the new employees aren’t steeped in the local lingo, everyone on the team will be forced to change up the words they use to describe a problem. When talking to the new employee, people will have to explain the jargon terms, and so they will also use lots of synonyms. The new employee won’t have command of all the new words yet, so they will also use unusual ways to describe what they mean.
All of those words that are not used routinely serve as cues that reach into the knowledge of everyone on the team and can lead them to pull out different concepts than they ordinarily think about when the familiar organizational language is used. That is, in the process of trying to communicate effectively with their colleagues, new employees are likely to make everyone talk a little differently about a problem, and that will also lead them to think differently about it.