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When Experience Is Not the Best Teacher
(Marketing Memo, June, 2009)

"Experience becomes a liability in times of change," claims Vijay Govindarajan, a professor of international business at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. After studying Encyclopedia Britannica, Sears, Roebuck & Co., and other firms, Govindarajan concluded that some managers are "so set in past ways that they can't cope with new situations." (Phred Dvorak, Dangers of Clinging to Solutions of the Past, March 2, 2009). Adapting to hard times requires new ways of thinking and a view towards the future, not the past.

The Past - Seven Traps

People often refer to past experiences when thinking about how to respond to trying times or difficult situations. However, if you think, "This is how we have always done it," you extinguish the sparks of creativity needed to adapt to new situations. Here are other lines of thought that also hinder the development of new ideas and new solutions:

  • We can't do it because it won't work.
  • We have never done it that way.
  • X never works, or Y always happens.
  • This is how we did it at my last job.
  • This is not what I learned in college/graduate school.
  • ABC Corp. tried X, and it didn't work.
  • Management will never approve X.

The Future - Seven Ways To "Help Yourself"

Istead of resorting to the solutions of the past (i.e., "experience"), assess the current situation, and look for creative new solutions. Ask the following questions to free yourself from the seven traps described above:

  • What else could we try? Generate ideas first; evaluate them later.
  • Do we have the information we need? New information may trigger more new ideas.
  • Whom can we ask for advice? Colleagues? Industry gurus? Other experts?
  • What do our customers and prospects want/say? How can we apply this information?
  • What do our former customers want/say? How can we apply this information?
  • Shall we take another look at option A even though we previously ruled it out?
  • What is the worst that could happen if we tried X? The consequences are often no worse than the status quo.
  • "You can always help yourself!" my mother, Johanna Schiff, used to say. Often, the solution is in plain sight, but you may have to gather more information and look at things in a new way. As long as you continue to generate and evaluate new ideas, you will do all right.

Copyright 2011 Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.

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