Surely you’ve heard the expression “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. This saying hides a truth that we frequently forget: our professional experience can limit our vision and curb our ability or our team members’ ability to be creative.
Of course, we are not saying that professional experience is bad. Professional experience sets us apart and makes us secure in our work. It allows us to walk on solid ground when it comes to solving many problems and allows us to get to know our field of action in depth. However, in a society that advances digitally at a dizzying speed, it’s essential to “reinvent yourself”, or be willing to develop different talents to adapt to the “digital era”. Nevertheless, our experience can backfire on us, leading us to overestimate our abilities, not recognise our limits, and not try different and creative approaches.
In other words, our experience can condition us when it comes to seeing solutions to problems because we don’t attempt other ways of solving them beyond those that we have already mastered, but which may not always work.
Is professional experience overvalued?
In a work setting, the expression “professional experience” has a positive connotation. The term helps us to specialise, define our abilities and skills, and lends us a certain status as an expert. We, along with others, assume that as we have professional experience, we know how to do everything related to our profession.
Despite its great advantages, experience also has a dark side: it distorts our vision, places limits on us, and can block our capacity for innovation.
How can this be? This is what the French call déformation professionnelle, which can be translated into English as professional conditioning. Professional conditioning makes it so that we only see the world through the lens of our professional selves and what we have learnt throughout our career.
The bias of professional conditioning affects both the professional and personal sphere:
· It limits creativity and the search for new solutions.
· It affects efficiency and results, as other alternatives that may be better are not evaluated.
· It puts up a wall when it comes time to innovate.
In other words, professional experience can close our minds.
The term professional conditioning was coined by the sociologist Daniel Warnotte, who made reference to the concept to critique how the bureaucracy of the public administration ended up making it incompetent.
The case of software is a good example of professional conditioning. Anyone who has worked as a programmer knows this. Programmers find it especially difficult to find bugs in the applications they develop. This is not because they don’t test them; they do test the new functions that have been developed. The problem is that they probably always test them in the same way. They know what needs to be done because they developed the software and always follow the same procedure. They don’t pay attention to other ways of testing because, as they are the ones that developed the function, their vision has been clouded.
How can innovative talent overcome the bias of professional experience?
To overcome the bias of professional experience and not block innovative talent and creativity, you have to put yourself in the shoes of others. You have to pay attention to what others do.
These others could be our clients or our colleagues in other departments. For example, in the case of software development, you have to observe the end users, no matter what. We have to see how they work with our software. Maybe our users are doing something completely different than what we expected them to do!
But software is not the only example. Ikea closely observes their IKEA Hackers, or users who modify their furniture or use it for other purposes. For Ikea, this is a source of innovative talent that their internal team can turn to.
Seeing through another person’s eyes can help us not to limit ourselves to our own way of seeing things. The fresh set of eyes from a second (or third) opinion increases our empathy, broadens our perspective, and rids us of prejudices. A fresh outlook pushes us outside of a rigid way of thinking and fosters our creativity.
Nobody is perfect at everything nor does everyone have the same way ofdoing things. If we ask a monkey and an elephant to look beyond the jungle, who will get better results? Maybe the monkey, who could climb a tall tree to see farther. The monkey will always be better at climbing than the elephant. However, the monkey can never match the elephant’s skills in forging new paths across the jungle.
Reflection question: Is your professional experience limiting your creativity?