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Why Relying Solely on Experience Can Mislead in the Workplace

Why Relying Solely on Experience Can Mislead in the Workplace

I think many people should have this feeling:
Don’t discuss work with empiricists.

What kind of people are empiricists, after all?

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You say, ‘Do your best, I trust you because you’re the most seasoned, experienced, and worldly-wise person I’ve ever met.’ He says, ‘Alright, I’ve got it.’ But then, unbelievably, he messes up a trivial task.

You say, ‘We’ve encountered a tricky problem; do you have a solution?’ He says, ‘This? I’ve encountered this kind of problem hundreds of times.’ But then, he simply replicates a past solution.

You say, ‘Why is it always in favor of the old employees? It’s unfair to newcomers.’ He says, ‘They’ve tasted more salt than you’ve eaten rice.’

People like this aren’t worth discussing work with.

Because in their eyes, experience is equivalent to ability.

But the more experienced, the more capable, right?

Not at all.

On the contrary, I fear the most those who are highly experienced.

What does that mean?

Allow me to tell you a story.

01 – A Story

The protagonist of this story is the founder of a chain of pharmacies, and you can call him Mike.

Recently, Mike has been in good spirits.

In the past three years, our economy has faced particularly significant challenges, especially for offline businesses like chain pharmacies.

Now, it seems like we’ve finally caught our breath.

So, Mike decided to do something big to inject a shot of vitality into his business and employees, which had been quiet for three years.

What’s this big thing? We’ll get to that in a moment.

Because of this matter, let’s go back three years.

From starting his business to the present, Mike has gone through more than a decade of ups and downs. He has witnessed the changes in policies, market fluctuations, performance fluctuations, and much more.

During tough times, he also experienced sitting in the store, watching the day go by without selling a single box of medicine.

During good times, he threw open the store doors, distributed flyers, put up banners, held promotions, and even achieved daily sales of millions in a single store.

However, in 2020, Mike’s business suddenly shifted from “ups and downs” to “downs and downs.”

Why?

First, it was a cost issue.

The pharmacy business, like many offline restaurants that depend heavily on customer traffic, relies on the principle of “proximity.” In other words, it heavily depends on how many people pass by the store each day.

For customers on the demand side, buying medicine is primarily based on the “nearest principle.” If they have a need to purchase medicine and happen to be near the pharmacy, they will come. If they have no need or live far away, they won’t come.

However, on the supply side, the store owner incurs costs every day, regardless of whether customers enter the store. Store rent is a cost, drug inventory is a cost, and employee salaries are also costs.

As a result, customer traffic is like tap water—only when you pay does it flow; otherwise, it stops.

Then, the pandemic dealt Mike a heavy blow:

Regardless of whether you pay or not, it stops.

So, can’t they go online? Aren’t many entrepreneurs shifting their offline businesses to the online sphere?

That’s absolutely correct. However, this brings us to the second problem—profitability.

Many leading chain pharmacies have successfully expanded their online businesses. By collaborating with various online platforms, they alleviated the pressure from their offline stores.

But the economies of scale that leading chain pharmacies can trigger are not available to many small and medium-sized chain pharmacies.

In other words, even if many small and medium-sized chain pharmacies want to cooperate with online platforms, they can’t make much profit, and naturally, they have no competitive advantage.

This is also why when you open many online delivery platforms for pharmacy services, you’ll see a few familiar pharmacies with varying prices and a lack of uniformity.

Sales are not guaranteed. Costs are non-negotiable. Stuck between two worlds, it’s particularly challenging.

So, what to do?

Mike said, “Don’t worry; I have a solution.”

Back then, due to policy changes, many pharmacies chose to close. We survived by distributing flyers, letting customers know that we were still here.

Back then, during industry reforms, many customers had trust issues with pharmacies. We regained their trust by putting up banners.

Back then, when conditions were bad, our sales were particularly dismal. We turned things around with promotions, boosting sales performance.

So, after careful consideration, I’ve decided:

To distribute flyers, put up banners, and run promotions.

For seven days straight!

02 – Two Concepts

I wonder what kind of feelings you have after reading this story.

The first time I heard this story, I found it both amusing and frustrating.

It’s amusing because it’s surprising that someone would directly transfer a specific methodology from one context to another.

It’s frustrating because such situations actually play out in the business world every day.

Some companies, in response to the mass migration of users online, decide to hold an outstanding offline event. But how do they do it? They just take the planning and methods from their previous offline event and use them again. It saves time and effort.

Some companies, to adapt to the rise of mobile internet, hold a special meeting. After conducting surveys, discussions, interviews, and designs repeatedly, the conclusion they reach is to establish a call center.

These past successful experiences have become shackles in the present day.

But if that’s the case, shouldn’t companies focus on hiring inexperienced individuals, rather than trying to find candidates with extensive experience? Answering this question isn’t easy because it involves two concepts that are easily confused: experience and capability.

What is experience?

Simply put, it’s the experiences you’ve gone through. It includes your family upbringing, the schools you attended, your classmates, the companies you’ve joined, the positions you’ve held, the businesses you’ve managed, and so on. Successful experiences, as well as failures.

The more experiences you have, the more you’ve seen, and the more you’ve executed, the stronger your capabilities are likely to be.

That’s why many companies tend to prefer candidates who graduated from prestigious schools, worked at large companies, and held high positions when reviewing resumes. Many candidates are even willing to join the ranks of the 996/007 workforce for lower pay just to embellish their resumes.

However, please note that it’s not “everyone,” but “likely.”

Why “likely”? What about the remaining probability?

This depends on how you attribute these experiences.

What does that mean?

Let me give you an example.

Suppose you are the founder of a “children’s basketball training camp.” Your camp mainly targets children aged 7-12.

But one day, you suddenly notice a problem with customer retention. Many children stop coming after completing one semester of training.

You know that this phenomenon is influenced by various factors, such as teaching quality, course fees, children’s experiences, and so on.

These issues need continuous improvement. At the same time, you decide to increase customer retention by giving away gifts.

So, what are you planning to give?

A beautiful basketball, a set of fancy stationery, a stylish lipstick… the possibilities are numerous.

After trying a variety of gifts, you find that giving away lipstick has the best effect.

Now, please tell me, what ability have you acquired from this experience?

Some people might say, “I’ve learned that giving away lipstick is an effective way to boost customer retention.”

But that’s not it. Whether it’s lipstick, a basketball, stationery, or something else, it’s a matter of “how.” It’s a specific methodology within the broader question of “how to improve customer retention.”

However, methodologies can become outdated. What you truly need to grasp is the big “why” hidden behind the “how.”

Why? Why did giving away lipstick work effectively?

Because for a children’s basketball training camp, the children are the users—the ones who use the product and receive the service. On the other hand, parents are the customers—the ones who open their wallets and pay for the product and service.

So, you see, if you want to improve customer retention through gift-giving, you should choose items like lipstick, razors, or rice cookers, rather than basketballs, sneakers, or stationery.

Most “hows” can only serve as your past successful or failed experiences. This “why” is the ability you can take away.

03 – Three Types of Subordinates

Experience and capability – understanding these two concepts will help you know how to avoid the problem of being constantly misled by “experienced subordinates” as a manager and how to prevent becoming an “experience-based practitioner” as an executor.

As a manager, you’ve read a lot of books and taken courses from various experts. You understand that a good manager should know how to delegate authority. One day, you hire a senior executive with twenty years of experience from a large company. You’re impressed by what this person says and does, thinking, “Wow, this person is really amazing. People from big companies are different.”

So, you let them take charge. However, over time, you realize that things aren’t going well, and many things aren’t right. Many managers, especially those in small and medium-sized businesses, have experienced this situation.

Why does this happen?

Because a senior executive from a big company, upon arriving at your company, might think, “Oh my, how can your company be in such disarray? We need systems, structures, and processes.” But your company may not necessarily need the same things that work for a big corporation.

You get frustrated, and they feel misunderstood.

Why does this happen? It’s because they are subordinates with experience but without capability. Their experience is indeed extensive, accumulated over a long period, but they haven’t developed or even thought about extracting capabilities from that experience. This can easily leave you feeling like you’re disappointed with their lack of progress.

What should you do?

You should guide them and involve them as much as possible in project kick-off meetings and review meetings. Make them walk the path from “why” to “how” as much as possible. Provide clear attributions, explaining why things are done this way and that way, rather than just telling them what to do. In other words, encourage more thinking and attribution.

So, what about those who are inexperienced but capable subordinates?

These subordinates always provide a unique perspective on problem-solving and help you broaden your horizons. However, they may lack practical experience or opportunities for real-world testing.

Who should they approach for budgets? They might not know. Whom should they seek approval from for audits? It might be unclear.

This can give you a sense of dealing with “armchair strategists.”

What should you do?

You should guide them and involve them as much as possible in regular meetings and work briefings. Let them know how their thoughts are eventually implemented. Provide clear solutions, explaining which department is responsible for each action. In other words, encourage more practical experience and development.

Now, you might wonder, are there subordinates who have both experience and capability?

Yes, they do exist.

If you happen to have such subordinates, I recommend celebrating after work because they are fully capable of being independent leaders. Provide them with autonomy, trust, and sincere appreciation.

In a nutshell: Reuse, reuse, reuse.

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