The Old Days

Man At Writing Desk
London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company
[Unidentified bearded man seated at writing desk, in 3/4 profile], about 1865, Albumen silver print
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Experience is one of the best teachers. It’s one of the best tools to have tucked in your belt when preparing to tackle something new or when tackling a emergency. It raises your value, broadens your horizons, and deepens your wisdom.

Experience can also blind you to opportunity, hinder innovation, and derail team efforts.

I am constantly looking for ways to gain experience. But when I find myself saying, “We’ve always…”, “Back when…”, “Before…”, I know it’s time for me to take a step back.

Years ago, a coworker introduced me to The Wire, an HBO crime drama set in Baltimore. Though not typically a fan of crime dramas, I fell in love with this one, and found myself quoting from it with him when scenes seemed to apply to situations in the office.

One which struck a chord with me came from a scene where a corner drug dealer named Bodie is complaining about the way things have changed to Slim Charles, an ex-enforcer for the old organization which they’d both worked for. Slim Charles says, “The thing about the old days – they the old days.” His point was very simply that times change and that you have to keep up because wishing for the way things used to be won’t change the way things are.

I’ve hung onto that scene. It’s what I use as my touchstone for knowing if experience is my advantage or my stumbling block.

I had a job where a coworker, let’s call him Glenn, had worked in the position ten years longer than I had, but he rarely volunteered to initiate change, get involved with innovation initiatives, or work on process improvements which would result in drastic deviation from existing processes. When new tools were made, Glenn would choose to follow old, manual processes – even if they added hours of work – if the new tool didn’t immediately provide 100% of the results he wanted. Conversations frequently involved how things were better a decade ago, or involved lauding relationships built or slights received years before.

Glenn should have been a rudder, guiding our team; but instead he’d become an anchor, holding us back.

After months of frustration, I came to accept that while Glenn’s attitude was a problem for the team, Glenn himself wasn’t. We simply needed to find a way to utilize his strengths and not push him so far beyond his comfort zone that he’d shut down. And while this wasn’t ideal, it meant that Glenn could still be extremely valuable to the team. We simply couldn’t expect him to recognize the difference between his experience being an asset versus being a liability.

Glenn isn’t an exception to what we see in the workplace. Harvard Business Review, recently posted the article, “Too Many Experts Can Hurt Your Innovation Projects” which notes that innovation thrives when eperts are about 40% of a team. Obviously, there’s a floor limit beyond which you lack sufficient insight, but the research indicated that having experts make up more than 40% resulted in groups tending to converge on old ideas.

The key is learning to see in yourself when your experience is a hindrance instead of a help, and being able to recognize when other members can’t recognize that in themselves. Then taking that knowledge and learning what opportunities exist in your organization to help everyone work together in the best way possible.

Life Inside the Cubicle