LOCKED Series #3: The Leadership Development Checklist – Experience


Life can only be understood backwards;
But it must be lived forwards.

-Soren Kierkegaard

In this third of a seven-part series on leadership development, I will address what might seem like an obvious component of high performing teams – experience. To be successful on a mission or project, surely a team needs to include at least a few individuals that have experience doing the same kind of thing or something similar. That’s usually true . . . yes, I said “usually.” Sometimes experience may NOT be what you want. Furthermore, even when you need it, you may not be able to get it easily. So, this article explores the “E” in the L.O.C.K.E.D. on Teams model.

What’s the difference between knowledge and experience? Stumped? I’ll provide some simple definitions – knowledge is know-what whereas experience is know-how. Knowledge is specific and exact. Knowledge is about how things work all the time. Experience is different. One gains experience by tackling complex challenges. It’s a best guess and doesn’t always lead to the right course of action.

Here’s the problem – how does one know when the know-how is still relevant and applicable? Times change right? What worked yesterday may not work today. Considering that know-how can change over time, can experience be a stumbling block to success? In short, ‘yes’ it can. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard eloquently pointed out, we live our lives forward. We only understand our lives as we look backward. Hindsight is 20/20. Unfortunately, living forward requires us to encounter the unknown. Those with experience may see new things as old things rather than approaching new circumstances with an open, analytical mind. That’s the theory behind Liz Wiseman’s excellent book, Rookie Smarts (Harper Business, 2014).

For professional military leaders, we encounter this negative ‘experience-effect’ when new conflicts break out. There’s an old saw about ‘fighting the last war’ that usually winds up wasting a lot of blood and treasure because the period between wars changes the context. It’s challenging to adapt to new battlefields and weapons because they have not been confronted before. The best experience is the kind that takes knowledge (lessons) of the past and uses it rationally in a new context with a healthy fear that past best practices may no longer be valid. Experience walks a thin line.

Think of experience as a type cognitive diversity. We humans often err when we form teams. We like to work with people like us which is anathema to cognitive diversity. Good leaders make sure a team is composed of a mix of rookies and experts.

As a leader, you cannot have all the right answers to reach the best decisions. Instead, your responsibility is to make sure the right actions are taken and the right decisions are made. You can’t do that in a vacuum. You have to assemble the right mix of knowledge and experience. Here are a few checklist items to help you do that.

 Include Experience on Team

Actions: Whenever you take up a new endeavor, plan, project, etc., as a leader you should seek out appropriate experience that is relevant to the task at hand. Don’t rely solely upon your experience. Seek out others with relevant experience and get them on your team. If that proves challenging, there are other ways to include experience. Refer to the following items:

 Red Team Plans

Collaborative planning is powerful on many levels. But, one of the greatest cognitive errors that individuals and teams fall prey to is the myopia that can result from “falling in love with your plan.” Furthermore, some teams lack the experience necessary to develop good plans. A red team is simply a group of people (usually just two or three) with some relevant, additional knowledge and experience that you invite to hear your plan, ask questions, and then offer frank criticisms. A red team provides a great opportunity to include experience in an efficient way.

Actions: Ask experienced individuals to review plans or decisions as a red team member. Furthermore, make red team reviews a part of your planning and decision-making processes.

 Debrief to Accelerate Experience

Experience is the development of a “Sixth Sense” that, as the popular author Malcom Gladwell famously discussed in his popular book Blink, allows our powerful minds to recognize patterns and subtle phenomena that informs the experienced actor in a complex situation. We develop experience through many activities. But debriefing provides a formal process to accelerate experience formation. Teams that debrief together are able to discuss and analyze complex interactions that are the building blocks of experience. Thus, participating in a formal debrief accelerates the experience of all involved.

Actions: Hold formal debriefing sessions after every project or plan. Those plans can be small, daily operational missions or long-range strategic plans. Get your team together and perform a root cause analysis on what went well and what didn’t. Generate lessons learned from these debrief sessions to improve future performance.

There you have it – just a few actions to take to ensure you have the right experience on your team. In the next article in this series, I will investigate the counterpoise to experience – knowledge.