Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Dull Edge of Experience

If you needed a surgical procedure and went to see a physician and she told you that she had performed the operation you needed 27 years ago and was therefore qualified to perform yours, how confident would you be about agreeing to employ that physician?

Obviously, this is a rhetorical question – but I ask it to draw attention to the mindset that many design firm professionals have about experience – and how too many people confuse experience with relevance. The most glaring example of this mindset is when people insist on highlighting the fact that project team members have 30 years experience doing X. Being around a long time and having had experience doing something can separate your firm from competitors. What most people don’t understand is that it may actually put you in the back of the pack. Here’s why:

Once you have had a successful experience doing something, you are highly unlikely to change how you do it – even if there have been significant improvements to the process – and this makes you a liability. A few years ago, I had to hire a newsletter editor for a weekly news-driven niche publication. I found a candidate who had 30 years experience in a similar niche, worked on tight deadlines, and had many accolades to show for his efforts. He was a complete disaster and I had to let him go within a few weeks. How could this happen? It turns out that this person was doing his work the same way he was 30 years ago! Because he was a good writer, his employers continued to accommodate him through the years – even as his peers began using computers and the Web to find information and communicate. For my purposes, his experience was completely irrelevant because he couldn’t do the job I needed today. Now whenever someone – a candidate, a vendor, a consultant – tells me they have 30 years experience my hackles go up immediately. I start thinking that this person is very likely to be out of touch – and probably cluelessly so – because he is likely being accommodated by the people around him. My inclination is to dismiss this person and go to the next person that has communicated their relevance, rather than their experience. This is probably not entirely fair, but it is what it is.

This is not to say that everyone out there with a lot of experience is out of touch and not thinking dynamically. In fact, two of my most influential mentors – Professor Hans-Christian Lischewski, former CIO at Perkins & Will and Charles Nelson, my colleague at PSMJAustralasia have 70 years experience between them and are the most forward thinking people I know. Their experience demonstrates a track record, their thoughts and actions prove their relevance today.

So next time you want to tout your experience, take care to make sure that it is communicated as relevance – in every context of your practice.

Until next time,


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Excellent points on experience versus relevance. I would like to think experience helps you to be more relavent. But you also have to use the tools available to you (and that your co-workers need you to use)--including technology--to help maintain your relvance.

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