Playing Offense and Defense with the “Experience Gap”
He had the kind of chin that made sky-scrapers feel soft. Two silver bands streamed from his temples through jet black hair flowing like lava. But even these whispers of age spoke more of wisdom-gained-early than the mortality carried by the rest of us mere humans. As rich as his appearance, his profile on paper was even stronger — Ivy League education, experience across industries at a number of the top firms, leadership titles, published articles, and biographical details that seemed transported from the resume of a significantly older partner. His look and story spoke with the kind of experience and authority that makes doors open in deference.
“Experience” is where his strength resides, what does it mean to be strong in this category? James Joyce suggests, “a man’s errors are the portraits of discovery.” The Norwegian proverb amends: “Experience is the greatest teacher, but the tuition is high.” High indeed, but seemingly necessarily. The errors. The insights. The discovery. Time is the chest in which those treasures are locked. But might there be more nuanced measures of value-add than a stockpile of years? At the core, people often think of the value of experience along a number of different dimensions: know-what, know-how, know-who and known-as:
- Know-What: By providing exposure to a multitude of situations and learning within the sacred texts of a space, experience signals what one knows about that field. 10–15 years of experience is going to give you knowledge on the industry and the strategies that work in this space. In the case of a craft… say, painting… experience might give you access to a number of different styles and techniques that expand your own repertoire. In the case of education, a law degree both gives you the necessary credentialing, but also connotes an ability to understand the field and apply tools from that discipline to a craft. The more difficult to put this “knowledge” into words, the more challenging it can be to ‘assign’ this leaning to an inexperienced individual without time in the field. This is especially the case with the next “know”…
- Know-How: To ‘know-how’ to do something requires moving beyond theory alone. Know-how is the aptitude of the practice. Let’s say you have been a book publisher for the last 10 years. By virtue of this rich experience, you not only know a lot about the industry (know-what), you also know how to cultivate relationships, how to interpret trends, and how to act in a way that leads to movement in the desired outcomes. Know-how takes time and careful attention to people. It is often more difficult to develop without experience than its more cognitive cousin “know-what.” One of my favorite documentaries of all time is a film called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”(trailer here). In this film, you see how one of the world’s top sushi chefs requires that his staff spend years on seemingly minuscule tasks — making rice, for example — before letting them move towards the design of the roll itself. Jiro puts a high degree of importance in know-how.
- Know-Who: Know-who is the knowledge that comes from people: knowing who they are, how they are related, and how to best engage with this network. Know-who is the ability to read the network of players, and then know enough of these parties to efficiently and effectively navigate this world. Experienced individuals often say things like “it really is a small world once you get inside,” no matter how big their industry. With know-who, what seemed to be massive and intractable becomes small and manageable. Know-who also drives performance of players and organizations within the system. In one of my favorite academic papers, Brian Uzzi (Northwestern) and Jarret Spiro (INSEAD) explore the ‘small world’ phenomena by looking at the social network of Broadway musicals. They show the macro-networks that form when people work on teams together — illustrated below a group of people that partnered on The Pajama Game, West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiedler on the Roof. Over times, those teams build into larger and larger inter-connected structures, social systems that go back to shape the outcomes of people working in the field. Their system of interest is the small-world, or the extent to which an entire network of people is both clustered and connected. Using their empirical method, Uzzi and Spiro show how the small-worldliness of the network shapes the creative and financial performance of the field as a whole. Know-who is a big part of the value of experience.
- Known-As: Being “known-as” something means that you have certain personal brand benefits that come from precious experience. You worked in marketing at P&G? You must be savvy. You went to Harvard? You must be intelligent. The dark underbelly of “known-as” is that even with incredible talent, if your face connotes inexperience and your resume lacks the appropriate signals, it’s hard to be invited to the table. Consider an analogy to the field of wine, taste, and perception, a phenomena of which I have written about elsewhere. A recent study from the Journal of Marketing Research highlights the ways that we infer quality and experience taste differently about the same wine coming from different price points. Seeing something as good, or expensive, actually makes you enjoy the taste more at a bio-chemical level. When applied to people, this means that the advice of that “Ivy-League, seasoned entrepreneur, too-young-to-be-my-boss” individual likely seems more legitimate than the same advice from a less credentialed alternative.
So if experience is a great teacher, what do we do when the tuition is so high? After all, even that far-too-young leader was at some point stuck in a position without experience. So what might it look like to be proactive in a situation when you are burdened by your own lack of experience? First — how to go back on defense when you lack the background.
- Learning: The first step to working around a lack of experience is to become a quicker learner than your more experienced colleagues. Sticking with the outlined model, quick learning must apply to all of the dimensions above. The quick learner must be attentive to their own knowledge gaps and then creative with how they are best filled. They should learn to observe what the best players do somewhat intuitively, the way they engage and build a network in a field, and the signals that most connote credibility in an area. Standing on the other side of the table, assessing a less experienced candidate means assessing how quickly they can learn to efficiently navigate the knowledge and network learning curves of a given field. Given we all face a learning curve, the focus shifts to who can more quickly scale that mountain.
- Improvisation: Even if you quickly close the experience gap, there is often still a period where you stand below a desired level of performance. When the stakes are high, even a short-duration experience gap might be enough to prevent the chance to step to the plate. Consider how my team of choice, the Chicago Cubs, are much quicker to bring up baseball prospects at the early part of a season when the slack os greater, or at tail-end of a year when all is lost. Learning is accepted as part of the process when the stakes are low. When the stakes are higher and a person is fortunate enough to be given a chance, they must learn to effectively navigate that space by improvisation. In other words, can they improvise in the absence of knowledge or craft a network while lacking those natural ties? From an assessment standpoint, the focal question is whether this person can pick up enough signals to keep their head above water without letting on that they are maddeningly churning below the surface.
While this is a start, each of these recommendations is about making up for a lack of experience… being on the defensive. So what might it look like to go on the offensive? One proactive approach is to reinterpret a “lack of experience” in light of the upsides that come from importing an alternative set of experiences into a new space. In other words, how can the know-what, know-how, know-who, and known-as of your previous work be harvested for relevance in this new space. The entrepreneur that enters the corporate space sees things differently than a traditional corporate hire. The philosopher that goes into strategy can approach the space with a fresh set of eyes. Learning to capture these insights while simultaneously working to scale the learning curve can result in a best-of-both-worlds outcome. The proactive individual must think critically about how their unique starting assumptions allow them to see differently than someone with the shared education and indoctrination of the insider. They might more easily see how certain ways of doing things, meeting people, and acting reflect a kind of limiting bias. To be an outsider is to have a chance to be the older fish in the great graduation speech of the late David Foster Wallace. He writes:
To approach your own strategy for the experience gap on the offensive, it is worth asking two questions:
- How does my previous experience act as an equivalency for what they are looking for in (know-what, know-how, know-who, and known-as) of that field?
- How might my previous experience allow me and mitigate the collective risks of the (know-what, know-how, know-who, and known-as) of that field?
Maybe Jiro’s sons really did need that time to perfect the craft of rice. Maybe we can’t escape experience’s high cost of tuition and the need to collect errors on the path towards a portrait of discovery. In many ways, I stand alongside the old proverb in it’s high trust of experience as a teacher. But, I also believe that ‘years of experience’ is but a proxy for what we seek. This means we can and should be more rigorous when thinking through what we are looking for or what we seek to develop in ourselves — whether know-what, know-how, know-who or known-as. Only then can we best imagine how to move forward with quick learning and agile improvisation. Only then might we see how our lack might not always be a limitation.