Salk’s Secret

...and how teams can benefit from it.

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Polio was first identified 240 years ago when a British doctor named Michael Underwood provided a clinical description of the crippling disease. In the early 1950’s, 15,000+ cases were diagnosed every year in the United States alone. And then came Dr. Jonas Salk and his discovery of the vaccine that has virtually eliminated this public health menace.


When asked how he came to conquer the virus, Salk replied, “I learned to think the way Mother Nature thinks.” This cerebral switch from physician to nature-observer is a technique each of us can use when confronted with a problem. The technique is particularly useful for those who work on teams.

Among the switches or temporary roles team members can assume are these:








Like Salk’s approach, Edward DeBono suggests wearing different hats. He offers this advice to those with important decisions to be made, significant problems to be solved: Challenge your brain by wearing a different hat as a given problem is being explored. The blue hat, for example centers on Managing. In this stage, specifics are provided delineating the subject under consideration, specifics regarding the goal, for example. The white hat encourages team members to zero in on Information, to determine the facts currently available.

Team members, after all, are not cardboard cut-outs. They are not one-dimensional characters who only know how to do one thing, how to think in one way. The ideal member plays many roles and works continuously to perfect each, to acquire new evidence that he or she can use to optimize contributions to the team’s effort.


When team members assume different roles, there is less chance for groupthink to occur. By enacting the different roles, by putting on different metaphoric hats, by thinking as Mother Nature or any other person might think, teams can achieve a greater balance in their thinking. They can provide more careful deliberation to ideas presented. They can be more impartial.

If you are the team leader, you can ask for a volunteer to play the role of a given person, a “synthesizer,” for example, at your next team problem-solving meeting. Or, you can assign roles among several team members. Encourage open-ended thinking as the team explores options.


Team leader or team member, you are certain to hear some dissenting views. Tolerate them. After all, it’s always easier to tame a wild idea than to invigorate a tame one. Insist on civility as these new views are being presented; encourage good listening; prevent interruptions unless a given speaker is going on too long.

There are no wrong answers when brainstorming occurs. And when people go beyond the normal boundaries of organizational thinking, their “disobedience” is not necessarily a bad thing. Finally, remember what In Search of Excellence author, Tom Peters, had to say about being disobedient: “If you have gone a whole week without being disobedient, you’re doing your organization and yourself a disservice.”

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