The parable goes,
A giant engine in a factory failed. The factory owners had spoken to several ‘experts’ but none of them could show the owners how they could solve the problem. Eventually the owners brought in an old man who had been fixing engines for many years. After inspecting the huge engine for a minute or two, the old man pulled a hammer out of his tool bag and gently tapped on the engine. Immediately the engine sprung back into life. A week later the owners of the business received an invoice from the old man for $10,000. Flabbergasted, they wrote to the old man asking him to send through an itemized bill. The man replied with a bill that said: Tapping with a hammer: $2.00 Knowing where to tap: $9,998.00
The moral of the story is that, while effort is important, having the experience to know where to put that effort makes all the difference.
I’m not sure of the origins of this story but it has been around for a while and many have probably read / heard it before; the moral itself is a great take-away (a little arrogant may-be, but great indeed), or is it? I’ve read this over and over and arrived at various different meanings of this moral (analysis — paralysis) and I hope as of writing this article I’ve settled with the one I’ll believe in for the rest of my life.
There obviously is no replacement for experience; experience teaches us what we could possibly not learn from concepts. For example, a concept can teach us the functions of a clutch — break — accelerator, experience teaches us how to use these while driving uphill; a concept can teach us a reef knot & a bowline knot, experience teaches how to use one when saving lives; a concept can teach us adding more people to a late project makes it later, experience teaches how to push back requests for adding more people on a late project. If this is the case, is there an objective measure of one’s experience that can provide us the confidence we need to determine their suitability for a job?
Of course, one of the answers is the number of years one has spent doing a job; this however is also one of the worst measures that exists for experience, especially in the realm of complex knowledge management. And yet, every job description that we read usually begins with an expectation of having a certain number of years one should have spent to be competitive for a role. So why is this not a good measure? And if this is the case, what can be a more relevant measure for experience? Below are three of my top picks and please note that none of these are based on any research, these are purely opinions which some logical argument to back it up.
1) Birthdays are Default
Our number of years of experience increases even if we do nothing. It’s like celebrating birthdays, we get to eat cake for growing old even though we make zero efforts to do so. Obviously, we wouldn’t want this to happen; ironically, this happens very frequently. One of the current examples is Infosys employing 750 team members to deliver a tax portal and this is for fixing bugs, which probably means that the delivery team had at least the same number of people if not more. I’m not an expert in building tax portals yet it doesn’t feel right to have 750 people fixing 2000 reported issues many of which cannot be resolved in parallel (in case an Infosys person is reading this, please comment). Of course these people will have different roles and responsibilities yet it’s probably safe to assume that many of them will not add much value in this bug fixing duration. It’s not something that these people wish to achieve on purpose, it’s just their situation; however, this will not reduce their number of years of experience in any which way. The same argument would hold true for people who are in-between projects while employed full-time with an organization (or on contract). And this will also hold true if you have a great work-life balance and take a month’s equivalent of holidays every year.
This is also indicated in the parable above, before the factory owners brought in an old man who had been fixing engines for many years, they consulted a number of experts. What’s the difference? We usually honor someone with the title of an expert if they have “been there, done that for a while”; this however is not appreciated by our parable and may be that’s how we should look at the number of years one has put in their field of expertise. For e.g.: a student becomes a Software Engineer the moment they graduate; they remain a Software Engineering Expert for as long as they remain in that role and that’s what the number of years stand for, the duration one has spent with this expertise (or conceptual knowledge). This duration does not guarantee the experience to know the what-how-where of applying this expertise.
What’s better? When it comes to showcasing experience, it’s probably better to tell a story. Just like the old man who had been learning where to put his efforts to make the difference, what have you been doing? What’s your story? Resumes are probably not the best instruments for this since most of us either build a resume around our responsibilities and / or our achievements. Stories are different! Stories are about your character-building; they showcase your development over the years, your high-points and your low-points, your success and your failures, your attitude and your learning. Stories reflect personality; your humor, your ethics, your thought-process, your leadership and more. There will be a mention of how many years you have been doing this, but now those years will have a backdrop of yourself which is unique for every individual either by their situation or by their narrative and that’s what defines every person differently.
To stand out from the crowd is usually something that many wish to achieve, few achieve it. To stand out, we need a USP (Unique Selling Proposition); that’s what our stories provide. This may sound like productizing individuals and it is; one may dislike the idea of being treated as a commodity my only request would be to have an objective reason for doing so instead of “I don’t want that for myself”. The other option is to be known by number of years and “I don’t want that for myself”. However, having stories doesn’t help if our organizations continue using number of years, so what do we do? I guess the hypothesis is that if most of us move towards stories, so will the organizations and that’s worth experimenting.
2) Experiential Inflation
In one of the most amazing TED Talks I’ve ever heard, Sir Ken Robinson talks about the process of Academic Inflation; he mentions that we live in an age where kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other.
I’ve witnessed this myself and fairly recently as well; I have been involved in campus recruitment and I’m astonished to see what the kids are achieving these days. They are aware of technology much more than when I was in college, they are making projects that are ground breaking, they are contributing to Open Source much more and more frequently, they are running clubs and events much more elegantly, and their outlook towards society is extremely modern. I don’t hesitate in saying that a graduate student today at least in the field of technology is already at par (if not less) with someone who’s 3 years old in the industry. And with access to more and more technology oriented resources, this is going to inflate further; if my capabilities today at 13 years is at par with someone who’s been in the industry for 10 years then 5 years down the line this gap would increase further.
So how do we determine leadership in this age? In times where many organizations still operate in hierarchies and reporting structures, will we prefer to have managers who have been in the industry for longer even if their capabilities are the same as someone who’s been in the industry for a shorter duration? What will happen if we have younger managers; will the older workforce be comfortable reporting to someone who’s been just a few years out of college? Will this result in attrition or outrage or retaliation? Before we discard this as hypothetical scenarios, I have had at least two conversations in the past where individuals (in respectable organizations) were either not given a leadership opportunity because it would have resulted in an older person reporting to a younger person (even by a few months), or another instance where a group of mid-aged leadership team have outcast a younger member from being one of them. If we believe that leaders can come from anywhere then how do we cater to this situation?
What’s better? My schooling years started one year sooner than most others in my class, so I matched the age of other students only after three quarters of a school year had passed. I’m not sure how much age is of relevance when in school since many kids have also graduated college in half the time an average person takes, in my case, I did find it difficult to learn what I was taught. Ironically, it was fairly easy for me to understand the courses of a class lower than mine (may be this happens to everyone). But even with whatever limitations I had with my learning, I managed to get decent scores every year. Many of my classmates who were almost a year elder to me scored lesser than me and never once did it affect our friendship at the time; we had fun together and we got detention together. Somewhere this outlook changed as we joined the corporate.
This is probably where a shift is needed in organizations and although not all can be Teal Organizations the idea is create a culture where Situational Leadership is more relevant than reporting structures. This is evident in the parable as well, the aforementioned old man called in to fix the giant engine received full-autonomy for his expertise. Although one might argue that full-autonomy & situational leadership may result in loss of discipline in organizations, this is exactly how armed forces operate ( Extreme Ownership), so may be the loss of discipline argument can be discarded. And even if the overall organization is not yet equipped to adopt this behavior, individuals leaders can; cultivating potential can be applied locally and sooner or later the organization will catch-up.
A revolution usually takes only one person, the rest follow.
3) Needed Diversity
Since I mentioned about stories, the story of Shantanu Naidu is quite unique. Shantanu was saddened by roadkills and one day he decided to invent reflective collars for dogs to save them. This effort got recognized by his organization’s leader who helped him with his venture Motopaws. Soon after he completed his masters, he was invited by the same leader to help him with startup investments and providing executive assistance. And that’s how a 27 year old Shantanu began working alongside Ratan Tata. There might be other Shantanus out there, start-ups for example are usually a playground for the young and hungry but it is unusual to find Shantanus in boardrooms of established organizations. Then why would someone like Ratan Tata rely on a 27 year old for his investments? His capability? For sure, and probably because Shantanu complements Ratan Tata to get into the mindset of the young entrepreneurs. I can’t say for sure but there’s definitely something to analyze here.
Diversity comes in various forms, age is one of them, it’s not the usual suspect though. The leadership of a typical organization mostly comprises of folks (mostly men) who have been a part of the industry for long and they are usually held accountable for motivating the younger workforce. Keeping the business cost benefits aside, every generation of workforce comes with their own set of expectations, a few of them are understood, most are not. With every passing generation the gap to understand their motivation increases until a point where two generations don’t see eye-to-eye on similar topics. How do we expect to keep up with the younger workforce with their leaders being generations apart? For example, a recent article published by McKinsey & Company states that the Great Attrition is happening — and will probably continue and with most of these happening with the younger workforce, leaders can’t fix what they don’t understand. Truth be told, age diversity cannot be overlooked, it’s just as important as any other form of diversity.
What’s better? Well, the easy thing to do would be to have some form of reservation for young leaders in every boardroom; this comes with it’s own challenges of how do we define young and how do we select the young and how does this work alongside other types of reservations? And even if we could answer these questions, there’s still a vast population who despise the concept of reservations. So let’s probably think of something more difficult, something more drastic; how about stripping organizations of their hierarchies? It’s actually not very radical and can be achieved at any scale with a few simple steps. First is to understand why this is important; with the advent of Business Agility the concept of autonomous self-managed teams have grown. We expect teams to be self-organized so they can decide how to fulfill their goals, they can decide their daily work, and they can decide who does it. This is a great concept, the problem is it’s very localized. Although individual teams can achieve this, the wider organization usually doesn’t, for e.g. there are a few ways to determine promotions — either a manager identifies someone, or an organization promotes individuals by default after fixed years of service, or a group decides this, etc. With promotions come added responsibilities and although most individuals may be willing to accept the new responsibilities, given the ways above, not everyone gets promoted (or at least not when they wish to get promoted); aka, individuals do not willingly sign-up for their new role; hence, not self-organized.
If we acknowledge that this is important, then we have the next step — getting rid of reporting structures. The roles would still remain but you won’t have a boss; there won’t be any corner offices, people can own their holidays, individuals can own their growth, choose their own projects, and the roles determine the set of responsibilities. Next comes the designations (grades) and this is the sensitive part; designations are invisible hierarchies where a level 2 is more important than a level 1 and level 3 is more important that a level 2. Designations also determine a sense of growth for individuals and is one of the main reasons for changing jobs. Getting rid of these is not easy unless we have got the experience as stories sorted. Referring back to our parable, the old man didn’t have a designation, he only carried a role and his story associated with it. Once this is in place, now when an opportunity knocks, the available people sign-up, only this time they sign-up for the role and not for the power. Sure certain roles may still come with a perceived power like a Board Member or a CEO or even a Project Manager however these signups are open for retrospectives and subject to change. It’s like running small experiments and failures result in a pivot. So now that I’ve presented my benevolent approach let us also acknowledge that realistically this may never happen. This section is not a directive for organizations, they may choose to not do any of this or do a part of this, the only point is to ensure that the Age Diversity is addressed.
To wrap it up, everyone likes old wine, having said that, technology has made aging alcohol an extremely rapid process. Leadership is the same; being old doesn’t mean being better; yes there’s a possibility of improved wisdom but that’s what we need to carry with us, our wisdom, even better — our collective wisdom. So let’s ditch our number of years of experience, one may have 30 years of vehicle driving experience but may no longer have the eyesight to drive at night and this acknowledgement is necessary to keep yourself and others safe through your journey. Instead, let’s get our stories straight.