Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 216
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Outstanding Problem Solvers

Research identifies several thought processes of high performers.

What distinguishes outstanding performers from average performers? Do they think differently? Do they follow rules others ignore? Do they have mental abilities we could test? Can we teach people these mental abilities?

These questions tantalize researchers, and Sabine Sonnentag, from the University of Amsterdam, recently completed a study of software designers that has broad implications for all business managers.

Sonnentag conducted a well-designed study that separated 40 engineers into outstanding and adequate performers. Next, she recorded, examined, and compared their thinking as they completed a software design problem. She managed this by having them think "out loud" as they worked, verbalizing all their thoughts, and if fifteen seconds passed without a comment, they were prompted to speak up.

Several thought processes distinguished outstanding performers.

Outstanding performers spent twice as much time processing feedback than did moderate performers, testing their designs and evaluating the results.

Outstanding performers spent much less time with their minds wandering off the task. They also suggested consulting with colleagues much more often concerning problems than did moderate performers.

Outstanding performers focused their ongoing efforts more efficiently by engaging in what Sonnentag called local planning. Local planning comments were simply ones that announced what they were going to do next. It seems ridiculously simple, but frequent explicit comments about intentions for the next step seemed very helpful in economically structuring a course of action. This was particularly helpful when activities were undertaken to search for a solution to a problem.

The managerial implications of these findings are simple, yet profound. We can help our people by insisting upon frequent feedback from the work itself, and by asking people to verbalize their next step. This will help them locate where they are in a problem and then do something to move the problem solution forward.

High performers spent less time than did moderate performers analyzing requirements presented in the design task. This means that outstanding performers were able to grasp the problem more quickly and could focus their energy solving the problem while lower performing peers were still trying to understand it.

Outstanding performers also suggested a greater number of strategies to arrive at a solution, and they produced more drawings that visualized the design problem than did moderate performers.

Taken together, Sonnentag's study revealed three qualities for identifying outstanding performers: 1) an ability to rapidly understand the requirements in a problem, 2) an ability to generate multiple strategies for solving a problem, and 3) an ability to generate visual representations of a problem. Each of these qualities suggest tests we can use in our hiring.

Think of your business, and think of jobs you want performed with problem solving as a high priority. Sketch out a problem that is common, and ask job candidates to list the requirements for the solution of this problem. Score this test by counting the requirements they successfully list and by timing them. Follow a similar pattern with strategies for solving the problem and visually representing the problem. The person scoring highest on this set of tasks should be your best problem solver.

Reference: Sonnentag, Sabine (1998) Expertise in Professional Software Design: A Process Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (5), 703-715.

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