We want to believe that experience is valuable. This belief is so entrenched in our thinking that it seems foolish to argue against it. But I believe that experience is a time sensitive product, meaning it has an expiry date.
You would obviously want surgeons or pilots to have enough experience in order to carry out their craft with diligence. Expertise matters when it comes to safety. When we are challenged, experience gives us the confidence we need in order to trust whoever is in charge to execute a process that promised a positive outcome.
But experience is ephemeral. Because it mostly capitalises on knowledge of the past. It eventually turns into a legacy and can become an obstacle to progress. The main reason for this is that most experts wind up getting into the business of protecting their legacy. They will find little incentive in putting their hard-earned reputation on the line for the uncertainty of modifying the knowledge and processes that brought them success. Regardless, there is enough evidence that suggests that a devotion to legacy works against you.
One of the most widely known tales of a legacy-driven failure is Kodak.
In the early seventies, Steven Sasson, one of the company's engineers was tasked to find out if a 'Charged Coupled Device"(C.C.D.) had a practical application. Hardly anybody knew what he was working on because the C.C.D. wasn't that big of a project. The technology consisted of a sensor that took an incoming two-dimensional light pattern and converted it into an electrical signal.
As is the case with most inventions, Sasson accidently made a breakthrough as he was trying to find an alternative way to capture electrical pulses the C.C.D. generated. The idea was to turn them into images. But the issue was that the electrical signals didn't last long enough to make it possible to 'crystallise' them into images.
Instead, Sasson tried to capture the pulses with a relatively new process at the time: digitalization. This allowed him to store the signals instantly and render them afterwards. He eventually found a way to display the captured images on a screen and the first fully functional digital camera was born.
Sasson presented the new device to executives from the marketing, technical and business departments and took it all the way up to the top of Kodak's hierarchy. No matter how well Sasson explained it to them, they simply couldn't see a future for it.
Referring to an article I found in the New York Times, what Sasson kept on hearing went something like this: "No one would ever want to look at the pictures on a television set". and "Print had been the proven way to handle pictures and nobody was complaining about prints, they were inexpensive so why would anyone want to look at their pictures on a screen?"
At the time, Kodak was the ultimate 'expert' in photography. It made money throughout the entire photographic process. It had created a legacy and it needed to be defended at all times. Three decades later, digital photography - their own creation - eventually put them out of business.
In the year 2000, Reed Hastings flew to Dallas to propose a partnership between Netflix, his fledgling DVD mailing service to the almighty Blockbuster. But John Antioco, Blockbuster's CEO dismissed the Netflix opportunity as just a niche market so he passed on the offer and wished Reed the best of luck.
Here's another story:
In the year 2000, Reed Hastings flew to Dallas to propose a partnership between Netflix, his fledgling DVD mailing service, and the almighty Blockbuster. John Antioco, Blockbuster's CEO, wasn't impressed. He dismissed the Netflix opportunity as just a niche market so he passed on the offer and wished Reed the best of luck.
Only ten years later, Blockbuster went out of business while Netflix not only reinvented the home entertainment industry but also became its largest player. However, it would be unfair to just dismiss Antioco's decision as foolish. He had, after all, built a reputation of being a retail genius, backed by an impressive track record of success. He probably gave the whole idea some thought and because it didn't fit within his proven formula for success.
ten years later, Blockbuster went out of business while Netflix not only reinvented the home entertainment industry but also became its largest player. But it would be unfair to just dismiss Antioco's decision as foolish. He had, after all, built a reputation of being a retail genius, backed by an impressive track record of success so he probably gave the whole idea some thought and because it simply didn't fit within his proven formula for success.
There's a great Forbes article with a more detailed story about what really happened at Blockbuster at the time.
There are countless stories like these and what they typically all have in common is that the reliance on experience blocked their view of the future. We project the past and the present into what is to come because we can’t imagine what it will look like.
I'm sure you have been involved in similar situations. I have seen many instances of it in my humble career. Almost everytime I've seen anyone who got hired because of their experience, there wasn't anything to show for it once the 'honeymoon' came to pass. In fact, I've seen so many young and dynamic businesses get sabotaged by 'experts' that it almost feels like I have some sort of PTSD because of it.
It is obviously always easy to form an opinion with the benefit of hindsight, but if there is anything we should learn from all these examples is that it makes sense to acknowledge that there is so much we don't know. It pays to experiment with new ideas, no matter how exotic or crazy they may seem.
Everything around us is constantly changing. The expansion of the universe just keeps accelerating. The climate on our planet is in constant flux. Our continents are in always in motion. Even the species that live on earth are constantly evolving into something else. Humans are no exception. We’re not the first life form to appear here and we certainly won’t be the last to disappear.
Change lies in our nature. Actually, it defines our nature. So the idea of dismissing and avoiding change runs against everything we are truly about.
Contrary to most life forms on this planet, we are never satisfied with just surviving. Instead, we are constantly finding new needs and new reasons to feed our ambitions.
Think about it. Not that long ago, when most of us lived a rural existence, education was a ‘nice to have’ feature in life. Sure, some people were hopelessly curious so in order to satisfy that need, they would seek knowledge as a perk. But for most people getting an education seemed as important as would be the ambition to strive for a lower golf handicap today. After all, there was work to be done at the farm. You needed to put food on the table! But eventually, education became a basic need. Why? Because the structure of our society evolved as we moved into the industrial age.
How about an example that you may be more intuitively in touch with: the smartphone. Twenty years ago we would never have been able to imagine that we would get upset when we can’t find a signal for our devices. Yet today we take it for granted to be instantly connected to others, that in itself was an abstract idea only three generations ago.
We keep coming up with new solutions to problems we couldn’t have imagined ever having. It is our chronic lack of satisfaction that propels us forward, therefore, just like everything else we've invented, technology is human because it's mere purpose is to be an extension of ourselves.
The expertise that truly matters is the willingness to become great at experimenting with and adopting new ideas. What is most counter-intuitive about this idea is our need to become 'serial beginners' rather than 'legacy experts'.
It means that at the core of every job description lies our ability keep learning.
Let's see what the experts have to say about all this...