Strategy & Marketing

Is Experience The Biggest Obstacle to Change?

According to Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth College, businesses often overestimate the value of experience.  In fact, he says experience can actually be a liability during challenging times of change.  From my standpoint, I’ve seen that exhibited many times, usually in the guise of “We’ve never done it that way before.”  Or, “That would never work here.”  I’m a huge supporter of the value of experience, but when you view the world exclusively from that perspective, it can be a liability.

I was invited to meet with the leadership team from a major media ministry a few years ago, and although they were at a serious crisis point, I felt the ship could have been turned.  But every time I made a recommendation, I heard the same response, “That would never work here.”

They could never tell me why it would never work.  And these were ideas that had literally transformed other major organizations.  But whatever I suggested, according to them, it would never work.

I soon realized that the problem was their experience.  They had been at the wheel too long, and in their limited thinking, they could only see the world through the lens of what they had done before.

Be careful clinging to solutions of the past.  During turbulent times of change, learn to step outside your own limited experience.  Open up to the possibility that other ideas may be out there – ideas that could actually save the organization.

Do you have your own examples of where experience actually became an obstacle?

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  1. True story that shows how right you are:

    My son was about 3 years old, a bunch of us were having lunch and on the table was one of those get the metal triangle off the rope type things, you know the type that you pull and twist and think the only solution is to hacksaw it off…that’s what kept the table’s attention for 30 minutes. We passed it around everyone tried there best and then it was handed to me. I just shrugged my shoulders and handed it to my son, 3 years old, and said "Ty will you take the triangle off?" Everyone chuckled a bit and in less than a minute my son handed me the triangle "here daddy."

    He didn’t have any of the rules that told him why it couldn’t be done, he saw the problem and made it happen…and he’s a child prodigy (but I’m not biased).

  2. Wonderful anecdote from the 1988 movie Working Girl (dir. Mike Nichols) that fits.

    Oren Trask:
    "There was a story on the news last night showing life imitating
    an old children’s riddle.  It seems that a truck got stuck at the
    entrance to the Holland Tunnel.  Too high for the clearance. 
    Well, for hours, the experts tried to find some way to unwedge
    the vehicle, but to no avail.  Finally, a ten-year-old girl in a
    passing car suggested simply letting the air out of the truck’s
    tires, thus lowering it to the clearance level, which they did. 
    And it worked."

    Every now and then we need to let the air out of our tires. And sometimes it’s the ten-year-old that provides the simplest solution.

  3. I’m an inexperienced expert!  I’m able to talk about anything, even if I know nothing about it.  In fact, the less I know about a subject, the more confident I am with the solution.  Speaking of, let me tell you a few things about this website. . . .  (seriously, thanks for the dispatches)  

  4. When I was young I was always frustrated by the older guard who resisted progress because of the "we don’t do it that way" mentality. Now that I’m older I find myself having to bite my tongue from saying that line when the new kids show up with their wild ideas. I’ve decided to accept the challenge that the finish line we want to cross is constantly moving forward. I’d rather be Lorne Michael of SNL who is constantly looking forward to where his audience is going versus Johnny Carson’s team who set up camp with one audience and never changed.  The Jesus application would be that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves and our experience. There is nothing new under the sun, so we can take our experience and start moving ahead of the curve. That is how experience can be a plus.

  5. How right you are. I believe that is the reason the church has a hard time releasing young leaders in ministry. They are all about their experience and not about what God is wanting to do next. This kind of attitude hurts many organizations from thriving!

  6. I hear the cry of the one who sees what others seem unaware of or unable to consider.  This can be very frustrating for anyone who has an external view to the situation.  To be fair to experienced people, it is hard to argue that it is consistently much easier to advise others than to be effective in our solving of personal or corporate situations.

    After all what we call our "experience" is often no more that the habits and filters we have developed in dealing with certain subjects.  Dealing with a teenage child can be an impass because the pill up of negative situations, but does it have to be that way?  In sales, or marketing or in those long list of unanswered prayers, how much is there of me who is so experienced – in dealing with the problem a certain way – that I have become disabled to look at it differently?

    Oh well, there is always a tomorrow, let’s try this again…

  7. Our experiences can also prevent us from living by the Kingdom rules. We don’t believe God because we choose to believe the experiences we’ve lived. We don’t want to take God at His word and we settle for continuing to live out our experiences. 

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