How much do you really know about what you’re doing? Have you done it, or some variation of it, before? The best examples of this are the politicians (who’ve never served) who give military advice. Or management consultants who’ve never managed anything. Or coaches and TV analysts who’ve never played the game. Is experience unnecessary for success? Is real-time experience – AKA learning-on-the job – enough? Is abstract experience enough? Or should you have lived in the trenches before you lead, govern, manage, coach, mentor or teach?
I’ve had partners at management consultancies like McKinsey, Bain and BCG, tell me that they don’t want graduates from programs in management, technology or finance, that they prefer students with degrees in mathematics, engineering, history and political science. The conversation occurred when the consultancies came to my university for a student information session. I was reminded – by all three – that their coming to a b-school was a little unusual because they look for problem-solvers with no particular disciplinary loyalty (like business). I concluded that they might have outsmarted us all, since not everything students learn in b-school is relevant or transferable to actual business. Fair enough, but engineering? Yes, for sure, because – as it was explained to me – engineers are once and always about problem-solving. (Though I’m still confused about historians and political scientists.)
I thought about this a lot since the time I was schooled on the essence of experience-to-be. I concluded there’s something called “abstract experience” that can be applied to problem-solving. Who knew? With this definition, “experience” need not be anchored in specific domains. It’s horizontal, not vertical.
The question: can you be trained to be a management consultant in healthcare if you know very little about management or healthcare? (The answer to this question might explain why some clients are unhappy with their management consultants.) While consulting “techniques” can buy time, many clients don’t have time to wait for their consultants to become problem ready. (This may explain why consultancies like to hire domain experts from their clients.)
Other abstractions are derived from analyses, books, articles, principles and best practices used by those who try to convert all this into applied relevance with hard-to-find artifacts of actual experience. Sometimes “cases” and “stories” are used to improve relevance, but here too there’s still huge gaps between what’s described as experience and what’s applicable to real problem-solving.
At the end of the day, second-order experience always struggles for relevance and applicability. Those who rely upon other than actual experience try to close the gap between abstract and real experience with as many analyses, books, articles, principles and best practices, cases and stories as they can, though they can never close the gap entirely. Or they ignore the gap altogether, and teach tools and techniques that can be used to enable problem-solving.
Experience gained by “sitting the chair” is very different from abstract experience. In the hands of insightful practitioners now charged with, for example, teaching, in-the-trenches experience closes the gap between simulated and real problem-solving. Yes, this is similar to age old arguments about the relative importance of theory versus practice. That said, the insights gained from sitting in the chair are without question additive to abstract or theoretical experience. The insights are also “visceral,” something abstractions can never contribute to problem-solving.
In-the-trenches experience provides content, context and “feel.” As someone who has taught undergraduate and graduate students, I can attest to the value of the experience I’ve had outside of academia. As a practitioner and consultant, I can connect that experience with “teaching” – in my case – business technology management. Without that experience, my classes would full-stop at the problem-solving door.
The same applies to leading, governing, managing, coaching and mentoring. While abstract experience can help, there’s no substitute for in-the-trenches experience if the goal is to solve real problems. But if the goal is to provide intellectual stimulation and knowledge sharing with theory, principles and tools, then abstract experience provides an adequate framework.
Both kinds of experience have their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, goals determine the best strengths/weaknesses mix. Maybe abstract experience is a good introduction to problem-solving. Maybe “theory” has its own intellectual rewards. Maybe real experience builds upon – or informs – theoretical experience as part of the problem-solving journey. Partnerships should be defined around objectives. If the goal is real problem-solving, then leading, governing, managing, coaching, mentoring and teaching without actual experience will fall short. But if the goal is theoretical, principles-based learning, then abstract experience will do just fine.
Leading, governing, managing, coaching, mentoring and teaching should feature an active partnership with abstract and in-the-trenches experience. But how? Here’s where open minds must prevail. The keepers of abstract experience must seek in-the-trenches experience before they lead, govern, manage, coach, mentor or teach. The keepers of in-the-trenches experience should seek theory, principles and best practices to deepen their problem-solving insight. As always, experience works for purpose. If the goal is to make money, reduce costs, expand markets and acquire customers, then in-the-trenches experience should lead. If the goal is to frame problems, introduce theory, principles, best practices and tools then abstract experience is all that’s necessary. Goals should define the features of the best partnerships.