Monday, October 13, 2014

In the Kingdom of the Newbies

Liz Wiseman, Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work

Did you ever read a book and think the author missed her own point? Say, an author praising the ingenuity of beginners, whose unclouded vision opens doors in today’s fast-moving economy? Liz Wiseman says plenty I find laudable in this book, but suffers the very tunnel vision she attributes to others. She’s so eager to extol the contributions rookies make in contemporary business, she misses that her evidence points to a related, but very separate, conclusion.

Wiseman, a management consultant and businesswoman of varied CV, covers much the same ground Shane Snow and Jack Hitt explored recently. However, where Snow and Hitt are journalists, Wiseman, an entrepreneur and researcher, brings hard analytical sophistication to her process. She makes a persuasive case that, in disciplines where innovative thinking matters, new players and career shifters bring strategic advantages which credentialed experts often miss.

Rookies accomplish this, Wiseman writes, through aggressive networking, diversifying the knowledge base, and seeking guidance where needed. Wiseman writes: “Aware of his [sic] own lack of knowledge, the rookie embarks on a desperate, focused, diligent search, hunting for experts who can teach him and guide his way.” Oh, wait, so experts really are necessary? Rookies benefit from their willingness to defer to experience?

That suggests, not that rookies beat veterans, but that rookies and veterans need one another, forming a symbiotic relationship where each advances the other. Indeed, where each lacks the other, catastrophic consequences frequently ensue. Untutored newbies created the Clinton-era tech stock bubble. Grizzled old hands with minimal tendency to ask plainspoken questions tanked the financial and housing sectors. Imagine if either had simply shown basic willingness to listen.

Liz Wiseman
Shane Snow addressed this very topic (I had significant problems with Snow, but this wasn’t one). Though one-on-one mentorships tend to perpetuate old habits, a diffuse program where senior workers counsel up-and-comers encourages newbies to take chances, learn more, and do better. Though neither Snow’s journalism nor Wiseman’s research proves it, common sense suggests such relationships also keep veterans open to rookies’ innate wide-eyed wonder.

Further, Wiseman repeatedly extols “humility” as a rookie virtue. Rookies, she insists, are naturally humble, where veterans are cocksure, shunning advice. I say: can be. We’ve all known noobs who accept, even solicit, guidance, and pundits who talk without listening. We’ve also known old warhorses who maintain the cheerful mindset of perpetual students, and novices who prove the adage, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

In my varied career, I’ve seen:
  • Apprentice actors who argue with directors, believing themselves unrecognized Pacinos;
  • Freshman Comp students who demand top marks because they received all A’s in high school;
  • Recent nursing graduates who unilaterally countermand doctors’ orders;
  • Graduate students picking fights with otherwise generous professors in defense of theories discredited decades ago;
  • Writing workshop participants who eagerly give criticism, but turn deaf when receiving it; and
  • Factory noobs who need bandages or splints because they reach around basic safeguards.
And I must admit, at various times, these people have been me.

Wiseman talks up “green belt syndrome,” a martial arts term for student fighters who, having received their first Dan rank, believe themselves born samurai. Wiseman clearly thinks this makes them scrappy and indomitable. But martial artists call it a “syndrome” deliberately: GBS sufferers frequently pick fights they’re unqualified to win, jeopardizing themselves and others. Some people require periodic ass-beatings to instill needed humility.

So, if neither rookie humility nor teamwork are foregone conclusions, what remains? Neither innocence nor experience seems sufficient, whether from common sense nor Wiseman’s exposition. Indeed, from Wiseman’s own evidence, I draw a contrasting conclusion, the necessity of all stages within complex organizations. Apprentice triumphalism is as unwarranted as professional self-satisfaction. Rookies need expert guidance; veterans need unfiltered newbie eyes.

Even Wiseman acknowledges this early: “Rookie smarts isn’t defined by age or by experience level,” she writes; “it is a state of mind.” Complex organizations benefit from occasional transfusions of fresh blood, whether from new hires or internal reshuffles. This doesn’t mean putting your best shellbacks to pasture, because new blood needs old. But it does require never becoming so enamored of past triumph that you miss the approaching future.

In my favorite quote, Wiseman writes, “What we know might mask what we don’t know and impede our ability to learn and perform.” I agree; I’ve seen Taylorist managers submarine their own operations by refusing floor-level advice. But that doesn’t make the diametrical opposite true. Wiseman’s so focused on rookie contributions that she apparently misses the two-way nature of the relationship.

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