Does the past have a future?
Mobile App Developer | Social Media Manager | Digital Marketing Specialist |Big Data Analyst | Data Scientist
What do these jobs have in common? If you’re thinking that they’re all digital era jobs, you’re on the right track. More interestingly, none of these jobs existed 10 years ago.
And yet we continually talk about hiring people with “demonstrated” or “proven” experience.
I believe that experience is a metric of declining importance, and HR recruiters have to think differently about what “the best talent” means. In fact, there is increasing evidence to indicate that experience is about as useful in predicting a candidate’s success as stock market data from the 1990s is in predicting tomorrow’s unicorns.
In my previous post I discussed some sobering data, and ruminated on whether or not we can truly ask children what they want to be when they grow up. With more than half of students in Australia training for jobs that wont exist in the future, future career paths is a legitimate question – not just for parents, but for employees, leaders and organisations.
So I could just as easily ask you – what do you want to be doing in 10 years? Of course, we all expect to be further along our present trajectory, or some planned alternative that is currently attractive. After all, we have built up so much experience, credibility, knowledge and relevance today, so that will be valuable tomorrow, right?
But what if our roles become obsolete? What if our combined knowledge is easily aggregated in a database and an uncomplaining algorithm uses our “experience” more reliably, consistently and cheaply than we can? What then? What about 2 years from now – is your experience going to matter as much as your ability to synthesise information generated by the digital era? In short, what is going to set you apart – your experiences from the 90s or your ability to learn and adapt to the rapid changes as the world transforms itself around data and connectivity?
This is why I argue that learning agility now outranks past experience as a determinant of success. To my mind, assessing candidates by jobs they’ve done well in the past is like driving on winding roads while looking only at the rear view mirror.
Assessing candidates by jobs they’ve done well in the past is like driving on winding roads while looking only at the rear view mirror
This is not just for the rank and file. Leaders, too, will need to get better at rapidly learning, adapting and synthesising new and unfamiliar information, rather than repeating and regurgitating past experiences. Most of the business scenarios you are going to confront in 2020 are going to arise from stimuli in 2015, not 2001. By the time you digest the changes and respond to the situation, 2020 will be in your rear view mirror. Your technical expertise will get obsolete sooner, and you will need to manage a younger generation of highly learning-agile people digitally educated through radically different education paradigms, who will regard your beloved experiences with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. Your decades of experience will be viewed by kids of today as roughly equivalent to the ability to drive a manual transmission, or look up library catalogue cards on the Dewey Decimal System – quaint, but unnecessary.
Your decades of experience will be viewed by kids of today as roughly equivalent to the ability to drive a manual transmission or look up library catalogues on the Dewey Decimal System – quaint, but not really necessary.
Since we all accept that the world is changing rapidly, the logical implication is that decision making is harder and surrounded by ambiguity. Therefore, to be an effective leader, you need to make better decisions with less information. That requires the capability to learn and unlearn. To me, a candidates skills used to be about what they learned by doing but now it’s about how they learn to do. Subtle, but dramatically different.
In this remarkably well written 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, J.P Flaum and Becky Winkler explore what learning agility means.
“Learning-agile individuals are “continually able to jettison skills, perspectives and ideas that are no longer relevant, and learn new ones that are.”
They go on to identify four enabling behaviours and one detractor for learning agility:
Innovating: involves questioning the status quo, asking questions to discover new ways of thinking and doing, generate ideas by bringing multiple perspectives to bear on a given situation.
Performing: managing oneself to be comfortable with discomfort, manage the stress of ambiguity, face into challenges while being present and engaged, and developing the listening and observation skills required in unfamiliar situations to help them learn faster to performer better than less agile colleagues.
Reflecting: by digesting new experiences and seeking feedback on their performance, investigating their own assumptions and behaviour, developing insights about themselves, others and the business. This is reminiscent of self-awareness, now widely accepted as being the single most important determinant of C-Suite success.
Risking: learning agility is partially a function of curiosity, which, professionally, can lead to progressive risk taking in that people put themselves in the path of potential failure. Since success in unfamiliar territory is all but uncertain, inherently there is a risk of failure – which is daunting and discouraging in itself. Learning-agile people start and end their days outside their comfort zone, and this creates a cycle of learning and confidence building.
The key detractor to learning agility is being defensive, especially when receiving critical feedback.
Interestingly, the researchers have unearthed that these four attributes translate into specific behaviours at work – namely, being more extroverted, more focused, more original, more resilient, and (this one is my favourite) less accommodating.
Learning agile people are more extroverted, more focused, more original, more resilient, and less accommodating.
Before you assume that means they’re intolerant or inflexible, let me clarify that learning agile people are less tolerant - of the status quo.
No surprises, then, that many of these traits appear on the Lominger Competencies in one form or the other. Mysteriously, these traits are referred to in a lot of JDs, but hiring decisions and the interview process often fail to go beyond lip service.
Now, let us examine the four key attributes. Are words like “original”, “risking”, “innovating”, “less accommodating of the status quo” typically associated with people who have had long experiences in the same function and roles? Do we typically see these behaviours from those with linear or predictable careers?
Or are these the attributes of free thinking people who are imaginative in their pursuits, unorthodox in their decisions and fundamentally allergic to being who they were five years ago?
Both the “Linears” and the “Agiles” have their place in the history of business. But if only one has a place in the world of tomorrow, who would you rather be?