Expertise and its Role in Innovative Problem Solving

The nature of problems in innovative work is that they are often ill defined, novel to the individual who engaged them, and complex in that often several solutions exist to the same problem. In this post we will see how expertise is an important factor in innovative problem solving, and how leaders and organizations can cultivate R&D team expertise.

One of the strongest characteristics of creative people is that they spend considerable time and effort into developing their expertise. For instance, Heinzen, Mills and Cameron (1993) found that early intense curiosity about a subject was one of the strongest predictors for becoming a successful scientist. Other scholars have found that extensive practice and involvement in the work at hand predicts creative achievement (Sternberg, 1999). These findings are not very counterintuitive, since creativity in its most basic sense is the combination of two or more elements of information. The more knowledge a person has, the better the chances are for novel and useful ideas and solutions.

Expertise is needed in order to solve innovative problems

Innovative work requires expertise, both from individual team members and team leaders. In fact, it has been shown time and time again that in order to solve the kind of problems that crop up in innovative work, leaders and members need vast knowledge and experience (Mumford, Scott, Gaddis & Strange, 2002). The problems of innovative work are unique in that they are often novel to the person who encounters them, ill-defined in that they are ambiguous and hard to understand, and complex in that they may well have several different solutions (Reiter-Palmon & Ilies, 2004).

The problem solver must therefore begin to structure or make sense of the problem by identifying goals, conflicts, procedures, restrictions and information needed to solve the problem. In some cases, problem construction is a relatively straightforward and quick process, after which the problem solver can begin to collect information, and generate ideas. In other cases however, the problems are so complex that successful problem construction is paramount for solving the problem in  an innovative way. Several studies have shown that when people spend more time formulating and constructing a problem, they generate better and more original solutions (e.g. Redmond, Mumford & Teach, 1993). An individual’s expertise, i.e. knowledge and experience, is a strong factor that decides the ability to both comprehend and generate innovative solutions to a novel and complex problems.

Two lesser known ways to cultivate team expertise

Expertise can of course be cultivated by granting time and freedom for organizational members to develop their skills and knowledge, and by offering opportunities for attending courses and seminars. However, one way to use an organization’s existing expertise is to compose teams that consists of several different competences, since research has shown that team heterogeneity is positively linked to successful innovation (e.g. Hülsheger, Anderson & Salgado, 2009, see also this previous blog post). Different competences in a team broadens the knowledge base. Second, see to that organizational members have ample opportunities for networking and interchange with external contacts. This was apparent in a Swedish study by Hemlin and Olsson (2011), who interviewed 75 scientists from 34 different R&D organizations. The scientists reported that the input and ideas from external exchange and collaboration helped to advance their research. Thus, external networking may prompt new insights and perspectives that would otherwise not be considered.

By Leif Denti


Heinzen, J. E., Mills, C., & Cameron, P. (1993). Scientific innovation potential. Creativity Research Journal, 6, 261-270.

Hemlin, S., & Olsson, L. (2011). Creativity-stimulating leadership: A critical incident study of leaders’ influence on creativity in research groups. Creativity and Innovation Management, 20, 49-58.

Mumford, M. D., Scott, G. M., Gaddis, B., & Strange, J. M. (2002). Leading creative people: Orchestrating expertise and relationships. The Leadership Quarterly, 13, 705–730.

Redmond, M. R., Mumford, M. D., & Teach, R. (1993). Putting creativity to work: Effects of leader behavior on subordinate creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 55, 120–151.

Reiter-Palmon, R., & Illies, J. J. (2004). Leadership and creativity: Understanding leadership from a creative problem-solving perspective. The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 55–77.

Sternberg, R. J. (1999). Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univ. Press.

About the author

Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti is also involved in a research project at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, studying organizational factors that may influence problem solving in project teams. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.

  • Ed Bernacki

    I would be curious on your position on an extension of this theme.  Unless we believe all people think alike, the way they use this expertise (however we may define it and acquire it) will  also differ. This impacts on problem solving and ideas that are generated to get results.   I am big an advocate of Dr Kirton’s work with adaption – innovation.  There is much evidence to suggest that there are predictable differences in the way people think, solve problems and deal with change. It begs some interesting questions – 
    If a team has much expertise but is comprised of people who think alike, is there diversity on the team?  (This could be a team of adaptive thinkers or innovative thinkers).
    If a team has less expertise but much cognitive diversity, is there any advantage to this in terms of how they use this expertise and the new knowledge that created along the way?
    Any thoughts? 

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