mindset’. The Thinkers50 member and executive advisor discusses the merits of embracing a ‘rookie
You believe today’s reality requires new ways of working and a different type of intelligence. Please explain.
I think we can all feel the work environment changing. Instead of going to a workplace every day, we’re operating in a ‘workscape’ characterized by vast amounts of information that we are constantly trying to process. Work cycles are spinning faster; we can work more and get more done, but at the same time, things change so quickly that many of us don’t face the same problem twice. Innovation cycles are spinning faster, too, which means obsolescence is increasing. The things we know to be true don’t stay true for very long.
At the beginning of the Information Age, knowledge was the critical commodity, but that is changing. Today, being able to access information quickly — when you need it — is the critical skill. There is great power in not knowing because it propels you up a learning curve where you are driven to find answers. In the current environment, the most critical asset is not what you know, but how fast you can learn.
Talk a bit more about the lure of inexperience.
I refer to it as ‘being in a rookie state’, and it’s a mindset you can adopt at any age. It’s a way of approaching a task when you are new to something that is important and difficult. In these scenarios, you are well aware that you don’t know what you’re doing — and that’s a great place to be, because rookies are unencumbered by knowledge. They might not have a reputation to defend, which means that instead of trying to defend their position, it’s all upside: they are free to explore new possibilities and go down new paths that people with experience usually won’t go down.
In this newcomer state, we operate like backpackers exploring a new terrain; we are both alert and in seeking mode. I call it ‘hunter-gatherer mode.’ The value of the newcomer is that they have no ingrained ideas about how things work. When you ask a person with experience to do a job, they tend to bring their baggage to the table. In the rookie state, because our situational confidence is low, we’re cautious. We stay connected to our stakeholders, seeking signals, and we don’t veer away from them for very long. As a result, we tend to be very responsive.
In the rookie state, we move quickly, because we don’t yet have any ‘points on the board’, and we really want to score a few. Instead of trying to apply all sorts of sophisticated methodologies at your organization, it’s often better to do what you can to keep people in this rookie zone, where they naturally work with agility and stay close to your stakeholders.
You have said that today, having the right question is more important than having a ready answer. Please explain.
I found this in both of my research projects over the last couple of years: the leaders who bring out the intelligence of their teams think in terms of questions, not answers. Answers are static, but questions are dynamic; they open up possibilities, and the right question can focus the energy and intelligence of a team. Rookies are naturals at asking questions, because they don’t have all that ingrained knowledge holding them back. This forces them into question mode, and that’s a really valuable state — particularly when things are changing so rapidly.
You have said that ironically, the most valuable rookie of all is the seasoned executive. Please explain.
We found that the highest-performing rookies are experienced professionals at the executive level who come out of one domain and are put into a rookie assignment where they don’t have all the answers. Sure, they bring along leadership skills, savvy, and an ability to work with people and communicate well — but they are thrown into unknown territory. This is where companies get the greatest value, because these leaders know enough to ask the right questions. They probably don’t know enough to have the answers, but that opens them up to learning and creates just the right levels of vulnerability, engagement and challenge.
When people know that their leader needs their help, they tend to step up to find answers and to innovate. That’s why the greatest value lies keeping our most experienced professionals and our most senior leaders in this hungry, unknown space. My fantasy scenario is that we get to the point where corporate leaders can readily say, “I don’t know the answer.” Really powerful things happen when leaders at the top are allowed to show the chinks in their armour. We’d like to think they have all the answers because they represent safety and security for the organization; but the fact is, right now everyone is winging it — even the people at the top. We need to give our most senior people permission to be learners — to ask questions and draw upon the wisdom of their teams to find the answers.
Despite all the efforts underway to wrangle Big Data, you believe trying to master it will prove futile. Why is that?
There is far too much relevant information available for any one person to grasp; but on the bright side, there doesn’t appear to be too much information for a computer or a network of computers to process. The fact is, what machines can
achieve with data is well beyond the capability of the human brain, so trying to win at that game will be futile. One of the most critical skills for corporate managers is the ability to mine that data for insights. The value lies in knowing where to look and what the right questions are. As a result, the critical skills for managers are the ability to ask great questions and the ability to search.
Our search engines are actually powerful metaphors for how we need to work going forward and how to be smart in the modern world. We need to be a lot like our mobile devices: they have very little storage, but they have a lot of processing power. Likewise, I don’t think we’re going to need to store a lot of information in our heads — because we have instant access to it. In the search realm, the results you get vary, based on the question you ask, so you really have to know how to ask the right question. You also have to be able to look at what comes up on Google and make sense of what is a good source, what isn’t, and how to process that. Then, the most important task of all is to create wisdom and insight from all of that information. Data on its own will never equal insight: we have to know how to use it as a springboard for learning.
Last but not least, a question from one of our Twitter followers: Do Millennials have natural rookie characteristics? And which demographic group is in trouble?
I do think millennials have a natural advantage in this environment, and it has to do with their impatience and their desire to contribute immediately. We need incumbent leaders to let go of the idea that new hires need to pay their dues before being given any big responsibilities. Millennials are coming into the workforce wanting big responsibility immediately, and that attitude gives them a natural advantage in terms of rookie smarts.
As companies smarten up to this, they will move beyond lamenting, ‘Oh, Millennials are so annoying; they come in, they want big jobs and then they leave after two years. Why should I invest in them?’ Smart companies say, ‘You know what? These people probably are going to be moving on to something else in two years, so rather than lament that, let’s encourage them to contribute from day one.’ I think we need to say to millennials, ‘Come in, contribute immediately, and then we will give you your next challenge.’ If you don’t feed them a steady diet of challenges, they will move on and get their fix somewhere else.
In terms of disadvantaged groups, I found some interesting points related to gender. Not surprisingly, our research showed that women don’t necessarily like stepping out of their zone of competence into a zone of incompetence. They don’t necessarily favour taking jobs that they’re not qualified for; so some may need a bit of a push.
At the same time, women tend to have natural rookie smarts: the ability to ask questions, to mobilize, to collaborate — and a humility that allows someone to learn in a lot of different directions. They actually tend to do better on some of these things than men. So there is an interest-
ing duality whereby women might not naturally embrace the rookie zone, but once they get there, they tend to be at their best.
Those who will be truly disadvantaged will be the highly successful — people whose experience has led to success, and then to hubris. Experience is not the enemy: it is the hubris that is often a by-product of experience that is our greatest enemy. Also, there is a whole group of leaders in the middle generationally, who can see that the world is changing and that new models have emerged. They’re making this mental calculation: ‘How much runway do I have left? Can I ride out my career leading the way I have, or do I need to make some fundamental changes?’ Those who are unwilling to change the way they work are probably not only dangerous to themselves — they might actually be dangerous to their organizations.