The Agile Team: Why Learning Beats Knowing
In her latest book, author and researcher Liz Wiseman presents a solid case for why, in today’s fast-changing workplace, not knowing can be more valuable than knowing.
The book’s title echoes this message: Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work. In it, Wiseman presents a case for hiring rookies — be they young or mature professionals — who embody Steve Job’s now famous commencement advice to “stay hungry; stay foolish.”
The key to creating an agile and successful team, says Wiseman, is to keep people on a learning curve, rather than a straight line. The result is a renewed, relevant and engaged workforce.
In this Monster interview, Wiseman relays how today’s top companies are doing just that.
Monster: Your book, Rookie Smarts, advocates for hiring rookies. Are you saying Millennials make the best hires?
Wiseman: No, I’m suggesting that people without experience in a particular task often make the best hires. Sometimes these people are Millennials, young and new to the workforce, but it can also be a mature professional who is pivoting from their current expertise and doing something new.
We find that people are often at their very best when they are in rookie mode — doing something important and hard for the first time.
Monster: What qualities demonstrate learning agility?
Wiseman: In my research I found that the “perpetual rookies” (those with years of experience and success who retained their rookie mindset) had a number of traits in common. They were:
1) Intellectually curious
2) Humble or, perhaps better said, teachable
If I were hiring someone for learning agility, I would look this duality: someone with a child-like approach to their work (curious, humble, playful) but who can also be their own adult supervision.
Monster: Is learning agility crucial when recruiting for manager positions?
Wiseman: Absolutely. The best leaders are learners. They know when it is time to shift out of the mode of leadership and into a mode of learnership. Not only do they need to be able to do this for themselves, but their agility between these roles sets the tone for the entire organization’s ability to unlearn and relearn dynamically.
Monster: What red flags should employers be aware of when hiring rookies?
Wiseman: A former Oracle executive said it well, “If you are going to start with ignorant people, start with people who want to learn.”
If you are going to put a rookie into a key role, you should not only look to see if they have a learning orientation, check to see if they have a track record of success in rookie assignments – meaning, have they been successful being thrust into roles where they initially knew very little?
In a dynamic environment, a track record of success in rookie assignments is likely a better predictor than experience.
Monster: Your research looked at how inexperienced people approach their work compared with more experienced workers. What did the data show?
Wiseman: Our data showed that rookies and veterans take very different paths to success, but that they both fail in much the same way. The highest-performing rookies sought out expertise in others, connected the dots, experimented, learned from mistakes, and focused on making incremental gains.
Conversely, the top-performing veterans had a distinct savvy of their own: They were fast to act, marshaled resources, found simple solutions, persisted along a path, and focused on solving the right problem.
Monster: What can more experienced workers teach rookies — and vice versa?
Wiseman:If I had to boil it down to a single lesson each could learn from the other, it would be this: Experienced people can provide much needed direction because they know which are the right problems to focus on. Rookies can then show experienced people how to solve those problems in new ways.
Monster: Should companies employ a mix of workers — rookies and non-rookies alike — similar to a multi-generational workforce model?
Wiseman: Absolutely. Innovation tends to happen when experience meets up with inexperience because there is friction that sparks both teaching and learning.
One of the interesting practices that emerged from my research was creating imbalanced teams – either distinctly heavy or light on rookies. When there is an even balance, the rookies tend to take a back seat. But, when there is only one or two, they are sought out for their unique perspective.
Monster: In your book, you characterize rookies as “alert and seeking.” What if those qualities run counter to the company culture ?
Wiseman: One would think that the asking and seeking rookies do would be disruptive, or even annoying. We find that not only do veterans tolerate rookie requests for guidance; they welcome the requests and want to help these protégés. Perhaps a mentoring gene kicks in.
Monster: Do rookies need more onboarding than more experienced employees?
Wiseman: It seems logical that rookies need more onboarding and training; however, overtraining them may reduce their value. Here are two interesting examples from my research:
• eBay revamped their onboarding process for recent college graduates to send a strong message: Don’t hold back, but jump in, share your ideas, and make an immediate contribution. In their first few months of work, the 2013 recruits on average submitted 25 percent more ideas for patents than the rest of the company and had more ideas that led to formal patent submissions.
• Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, says, “I’m careful about what not to teach our new people. I never tell our new business development staff how to size a deal. Many of them end up bringing in far greater-sized deals than the experienced staff do. I also never tell them when or where to start in the sales process, because, in absence of knowing, they often just start the conversation at the top of the organization.”
Just because someone doesn’t have explicit experience doesn’t mean they are an empty vessel that needs to be filled up. Wise managers will do well to point them in the right direction, tell them to learn fast and start contributing immediately. They might surprise you on the upside.
Monster: What rookie qualities should organizations cultivate across their entire workforce?
Wiseman: Organizations that want to cultivate rookie smarts across their culture should hire for the underlying characteristics of perpetual rookies (curious, humble, playful, and deliberate) but then coach people to operate in the rookie-smart modes: Hunter-Gatherer mode (alert and seeking), Firewalker mode (cautious but quick) and Pioneer mode (relentless and improvising).
Monster: Not all rookie qualities are “smart.” For instance, you recommend keeping an “I Don’t Know” list and “announcing your ignorance” to others.
Wiseman: I would call this intelligent ignorance — being conscious of one’s incompetence, but being intelligent about closing that knowledge gap. To intellectually curious people, what they don’t know is far more interesting than what they do know, so they readily announce their ignorance, giving other people permission to teach them what they need to know.
Monster: Why is it good to be a “perpetual rookie”?
Wiseman: Right now, business cycles are spinning so fast that most of we know today will not be relevant in a few years. The speed with which we learn will be more critical than the extent of what we know. In this environment, our most valuable players must know how (and when) to play the perpetual rookie.
Liz Wiseman is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work as well as the bestselling book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. Liz is a former executive from Oracle Corporation. She has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and named as one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world.
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