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Are You Experienced?

There is a non-trivial problem that the U.S.-based auto industry is going to be facing (and to some extent already is getting smacked in the jaw by), and it is not overcapacity, outsourcing of jobs, or declining sales—although there are all of those.

There is a non-trivial problem that the U.S.-based auto industry is going to be facing (and to some extent already is getting smacked in the jaw by), and it is not overcapacity, outsourcing of jobs, or declining sales—although there are all of those. The problem that the auto industry leaders will come up against is the fact that because of both downsizing and demographics there will be a dearth of experienced people at all levels of their organizations. Which means that comparative rookies may be the ones who are charged with trying to figure out how to manage in a period that will make today look like a cakewalk.
While there is no straightforward solution, per se, to this problem, Dorothy Leonard, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School and a redoubtable expert on how organizations develop products (or fail to), and Walter Swap, a professor of psychology (emeritus) at Tufts University, have a recommendation: have knowledgeable people work with the neophytes such that the former can help the latter learn how they need to think. They describe their plan in Deep Smarts.

“Deep smarts” are developed by doing more than by pouring over texts including Deep Smarts (although it is useful to learn from these books so that one knows what needs to be focused on). They insist that actual experience is vital for learning. They write, “deep smarts constitute practice-based wisdom.”

“Experience defines us professionally—especially in those fields in which practice is more critical than ‘book learning.’ Management is such as field, as is medicine. No matter how prestigious her medical school, we are more interested in how many times our physician has successfully performed the exact procedure we are about to undergo than whether she got an A in biochemistry.” Getting that A may be helpful for what she’s about to do, but insufficient. Similarly, knowing how to deal with market shifts, strikes, over capacity, supplier problems, etc., from the basis of having done it before is more important than simply having read about those things.

The authors studied a number of the companies created during 2000-2002 before the Internet Bubble burst and took many of them down. As they put it, “the entrepreneurs generated a stream of start-ups that were the equivalent of laboratory fruit flies.” Plentiful and short-lived. “One of the reasons so many Internet start-ups failed was that their founders had so little entrepreneurial or managerial experience to match their technological deep smarts.” These people had A’s in technology but little hands-on experience. Not all failed. One of the reasons why some of the companies succeeded was because there were coaches who had experience who worked with the founders.

Simply achieving deep smarts isn’t easy. For one thing, the authors point out that people need to practice their area of expertise: “It is this willingness to practice (despite the fact that experts enjoy practicing no more than the rest of us) that distinguishes those who go on to become master surgeons, cellists, marksmen, award-winning salespeople, or CEOs.” But this isn’t readily done: “Most evidence suggests that it takes at least ten years of concentrated study and practice to become expert (as opposed to merely competent).” Ten years! What’s more, there needs to be desire: “there is strong evidence that extrinsic forces—rewards, threats, and the like—may induce people to work hard, but do not promote learning or creativity nearly as much as intrinsic motivation—from wanting to learn. In short, building deep smarts requires commitment from the heart as well as dedication from the brain—and doing something just because others think you should doesn’t inspire that kind of effort.” Desire helps lead to depth.