Leading successfully in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world demands rapid learning. As Jack Welch observed “an organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”
Learning under conditions of uncertainty is a topic addressed in the book “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work” by Liz Wiseman which describes a study that explored how experienced versus inexperienced people learn and tackle problems.
Wiseman’s research provides fascinating insights into how leaders can improve their learning in a VUCA world.
Why Rookie Smarts Matters
So what do we mean by the term rookie? A rookie is someone who is new to something. Wiseman writes, “rookie smarts aren’t defined by age or experience; it is a state of mind.” It is this rookie mindset that makes all the difference when learning in conditions of uncertainty.
It turns out that rookies approach their work in very different ways compared to those with experience. The ways that rookies learn makes a huge difference, Wiseman’s research found that rookies often outperform their more experience peers, especially when work demands innovation.
A VUCA world demands leaders who think less like an experts and more like a rookies.
- Leaders who are constantly learning, learning about what’s happening, what’s new and what’s possible.
- Leaders who can operate as rookies without the need to protect the status quo.
- Leaders who are humble, who have an open mind and are not afraid of asking difficult questions.
- Leader who push the limits of what is possible.
- Leaders who constantly seek out the advice and guidance from other, to learn and innovate.
Contrast these rookies with the thinking and actions of leaders who see themselves as experts.
- Expert leaders stop asking questions.
- Expert leaders do not seek feedback.
- Expert leaders are internally focused.
- Expert leaders spend their time telling people what they know.
- Expert leaders spend their time giving advice and answering questions.
- Expert leaders are focused on protecting the status quo and what they know to be true about the world.
- Expert leaders are less likely to venture into the unknown and to blaze new trails.
Leading from an expert mindset severely limits your ability to adapt to change and embrace new ways of doing things.
Elon Musk the Ultimate Rookie Leader
“I read a lot of books and talked to lots of people” – Elon Musk
A great rookie leader is South African born serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, Wikipedia describes him as follows “the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors, and chairman of SolarCity. He is the founder of SpaceX and a cofounder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and Zip2. He has also envisioned a conceptual high-speed transportation system known as the Hyperloop.”
What is fascinating about the companies Musk has founded is that each is in a completely different industry. Before starting these companies Musk was by no means an expert in any of these businesses, having never worked for NASA, Boeing a bank or a car manufacturer. He is however an expert learner, he has rookie smarts.
“Jim Cantrell, who was an aerospace consultant at the time, became SpaceX’s first VP of business development and Musk’s industry mentor when the company launched in 2002. He says that Musk literally taught himself rocket science by reading textbooks and talking to industry heavyweights.” – Richard Feloni, Former SpaceX Exec Explains How Elon Musk Taught Himself Rocket Science
Leaders who adopt a learning mindset are better positioned to lead successfully in a VUCA world. These leaders think of themselves as students of their respective industries and disciplines. They have learnt to develop their rookie smarts, by adopting a rookie mindset and learning approach. Let us explore the rookie mindset in more detail.
Rookies Explore New Possibilities
“Newcomers, without the weight of knowledge, ritual, and rule to constrain their thinking, often ask questions that cut to the core of an issue. But the longer we live with a problem, the less likely we are to think we can do anything about it.” – Liz Wiseman, “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work”
Rookies are not burdened by past success or by an economic and social commitment to the status quo. Rookies don’t have any preconceived ideas about how things should work formed by past experience. This means rookies are much more open to new possibilities, new thinking and new ideas. Rookies see the world with fresh eyes, and are eager to venture out into the unknown. Rookies want to build something new and different, they want to make their mark. Rookies are keen to explore, to fail and to learn. Experienced veterans? Not so much.
Wiseman’s study found that veterans – the more experienced managers – were twice as likely to seek certainty and to default to past behaviour. Veterans hold onto what is safe, they don’t venture into the unknown. Veterans are too quick to settle for what is easy and comfortable.
The bottom line is that experience tends to creates blind spots that causes you to miss opportunities, rationalise away weak signals that contradict your current worldview.
The Lesson for Leaders
“Stay Hungry; Stay Foolish.” – Steve Jobs
Don’t become a victim of your past success. Seek out new possibilities and new ways of doing things. Stay curious, humble and open. Actively seek out views and opinions that differ from your own. Look for ideas that go against what you know to be true. Give these alternative perspectives serious consideration.
Toss out your trusted playbook of industry norms and best practice, begin explore and create your next practice.
Rookies Seek Help and Ask Questions
“By reaching out to others experts, inexperienced people, on average, will bring five times the level of expertise to a problem than a single experienced person does.” – Liz Wiseman, “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work”
Comfortable in their understanding as to what it takes to succeed, veterans stop asking questions and spend a lot less time seeking advice and guidance. Veterans become over-confident, if not careful arrogant, only seeing that which supports their current thinking. They surround themselves with like-minded people who serve to confirm their existing worldview. They reject experts and advisors that threaten to disrupt their worldview. Compare this thinking this with how rookies approach their work.
Wiseman’s study found that “rookies are four times more likely than veterans to ask for help.” Not only are rookies more likely to ask for help “rookies seek out expertise 40 percent more often than experienced professionals.” and “rookies reach out to five times more experts than veterans do”.
Rookies actively seek help and listen to advice from a broad spectrum of advisors and experts.
The Lesson for Leaders
“It is impossible to begin to learn what one thinks one already knows.” – Epictetus
Reject the idea that you as the leader must have all the answers. Instead start with the right set of questions. Be a leader who is asking questions, rather than a leader who is providing answers.
When facing a problem or challenge. Pause. Reach out to five experts. Ask questions. Take time to listen and dig deep. Read widely. Network with peers in your industry. Engage.
The Right Mindset for the Right Job
Whilst a rookie mindset has benefits, there are times when you need to be the veteran leader. Leaders like Elon Musk have learnt to leverage their rookie smarts. They are able to switch between the two modes of thinking and acting. They know when they need to lean on their experience as guide and they know when they need to step back and take on the role of the rookie.
In times of uncertainty and in situations that demand innovation the rookie mindset is the leader’s tool of choice. When innovation is required a rookie mindset really matters. In the VUCA world of today the demand for experienced veterans is waning. What is needed are more smart rookies to help navigate a way forward.