Not me after 2 decades of owning a guitar

Experience is often a commodity on which employment decisions are made. People can progress in organisations via the experience they’ve gained with them. Organisations when recruiting often search for individuals with X+ years of experience for certain roles. Assuming that having prolonged exposure to a skill, problem set or business domain the individual will be more likely to outperform or impart knowledge to others. This assumption clearly has some validity, as we overcome challenges we develop a toolkit of approaches that we can use when we find similar problems. Experience also enables optimisation especially on non-complex tasks. For example, say you are tasked with clearing hay bales from a field. It will be really hard work to start with until you find the optimal way to collect. I did this once and forced to find a way before the skin on my knuckles completely disappeared.

So experience is a good thing, right?

Not always, there is a dark side to experience which is often overlooked. Experience can lead to a hardening of approach. Research by Levitt and March 1988; Leonard-Barton 1992 suggest that groups and individuals may become fixed in their way of doing things and that as conditions change (say a new position,product or organisation), will not respond. Leading thinking such as “This is the way I’ve always done this and it’s worked in the past so this is the way we should do it today.” So it sounds like experience can stifle creativity, at least until those involved realise that the context has shifted to such an extent that what worked in the past may no longer work as well, if at all.

Another common problem with experience is when it’s is used as irrefutable proof that something said is correct. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this in the past so look out for statements like:

“Let’s listen to the expert on this!”

“Trust me, I’ve been an expert in this for [insert impressive amount of time here].”

“You’re paying me for my expertise so let’s utilise it!”

When experience leads to hubris the conversation is lost. It encourages people to move away from the reason why a concept or point should be listened too. To take shortcuts, welding experience as a certificate of authenticity. If you use this kind of approach people will feel challenged rather than inspired. Many people with a wealth of experience start with an expectation that they should be listened too and then move onto the “why” of what they’re saying. Their message would be better received if they started with the “why” or offered any advise as a opportunity to try something new. The added advantage of the later being increased ownership and an encouragement to learn.

The other problem with experience is that you can’t ensure that a lot of experience equates to a lot of knowledge gained. Nor can you equate experience to growth potential. 10 years experience sounds impressive but when you’ve spent the last 10 years doing the same thing day in day out that experience isn’t going to help you much when you get a job in a start-up. I’ ve been “learning” guitar, largely through osmosis, for years yet I can still only play 6 chords. My mother has been playing for less than a year and can now start her own Queen tribute band (she’s Brian BTW).

So what can we take away from all this?

Well for one thing lets not lazily throw experience into requirements for roles. Everytime you see the word “experience” take a moment to think about what you really want? Do you want someone who has the capability to learn? Do you want someone who has gained certain knowledge? Do you want someone who is likely to have tools to overcome challenges you are facing?

Secondly when you have all this experience don’t weaponise it. Use it as a force for good, offer it don’t demand it. Provide it as an opportunity to try something that might work rather than ascert it as fact.

Thirdly, rewarding long service is one thing. Equating long service with growth, progression and proficiency is quite another. Let’s ensure that the most capable person gets the promotion not the person who’s served the time.

Lastly experience should be about more than just the passing of time, it should be about experiences. If you don’t get exposure to new experiences then is your experience valuable?

About the author: Chris Davey is an Agile coach and Scrum Master working out of the UK. He has many many years of experience, in fact so many that it’s probably the most impressive number that comes to mind. Although not so much that he’s set in his ways and has switched off. Always interested in learning new things, experiencing new challenges and helping people towards their goals. All feedback welcome. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him (, maybe you can hire: Chris Davey (see so much experience I can even get away with A-team quotes not to mention Jimi)

Reference: Team Familiarity, Role Experience, and Performance: Evidence from Indian Software Services Robert S. Huckman Bradley R. Staats David M. Upton