One of the fundamental truths in the business world is that experience is a good thing.
When we want to hire someone for a job, we demand it. When we look back at our own careers, we realize that once we have it, we are better at many things than we were before we had it. And in leadership development, we look for opportunities to give people more. And I get it. Experience is a good thing, and we learn a lot when we do things (as opposed to just think about them or read about them), so I’m fine with experience.
But there is a downside we don’t often consider. We do learn a lot from experience, but it simultaneously closes us off from future learning, because now we’ve figured out “how it’s done.” Unfortunately, that “how it’s done” was at a point in time, in a particular context. As we move into the future, the environment has changed, and opportunities for learning and innovation abound, but due to our experience, we don’t see them, because we already know what we’re doing. We have lost our “beginner’s mind,” so while we make fewer mistakes, we are also probably missing opportunities.
Here are some ideas for staff development to try to overcome this gap:
Rethink mentoring. We tend to think of mentoring in terms of an experienced person showing the ropes to a less experienced person. Why not think of it as a two-way street? Maybe this is a learning opportunity for the more experienced person to find out what someone with more of a beginner’s mind would notice in that particular role. My previous post on job rotations fits into this as well.
Build in time for learning. The true value of experience is often efficiency. Once you know what you’re doing, you do it faster. We really value that, but that comes at the expense of learning, which can take time. I still come back to the old practice in the military of the after action review. I don’t know why we aren’t doing this more in civilian organizations. After you do something, dig into it as a group about what worked, what didn’t and why, and let everyone participate, not just the senior (i.e., experienced) people. This would develop staff and open up the path to innovation, but you have to make the time to actually do it.
Build the capacity to disagree. Every professional development plan these days should include skills in conflict resolution and communication. The only way you can get deep learning, and the only way you can uncover the opportunities the “experienced” mind may be missing is if you can openly disagree with each other. The experienced people will inevitably think the inexperienced people just “don’t get it” and will try to shut the conversation down. Unless you’ve got the skill to disagree artfully, you’ll miss opportunities.