Using experience

Over many years I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of very experienced people, and more recently I’ve been working with senior leaders, each with a stong history of senior leadership in many organisations. And it’s been fascinating to see how those people respond to questions that are new to this particular group. For example, “We are about to engage with our first customer with this particular profile; how should we approach things?” or “We want a strong local operation in this geographic territory in 12 months’ time; how can we get there?” These questions are new to this particular organisation, but something that the individuals involved may have encountered many times elsewhere.

And what I see most of all is not that the experienced individuals have the precise answers, but they can identify immediately what is important, what is not important, what to focus on, and what to beware of. In general what they offer is a clear shape for a solution and steering for next steps, without the specific details. They don’t generally tell anyone what to do, but they do provide great clarity and show the way. This is an example of leadership rather than direct control, and it allows the group to move forward together.

There are a couple of caveats to this. One is that I’m not talking about emergencies or crises; when there is a crisis we do need and expect individuals to take direct control. But that’s a different kind of situation. Another is that I work in the technology industry where challenges are rarely routine—what the cynefin framework categorises as “complex”. It’s entirely possible that in companies or industries where challenges are more routine (where cause has predictable effects, and which cynefin categorises as “simple” or “complicated”) having specific answers might be more realistic and useful.

So this is often how I recognise experience—in anyone—the ability to quickly assess a situation and provide clear guidance and leadership.