Home Professionalisms Three Ways Business Leaders Can Avoid The Cognitive Trap Of Experience

Three Ways Business Leaders Can Avoid The Cognitive Trap Of Experience


by Marty Strong, author of “Be Visionary: Strategic Leadership in the Age of Optimization

Experience is often touted as a primary rationale for talent selection, promotion, and decision making. On the face of it, this makes sense. We instinctively feel better when our commercial plane is flown by a silver haired pilot with twenty years in the cockpit and feel less confident if we catch a glimpse of a baby faced pilot sitting behind the controls. I’ll be the first to admit that experience counts, that is, until it doesn’t. If change is an operating principle of our universe, why do we put so much value and emphasis on experience?

In the course of human history, established norms in thought and practice have ploughed resolutely forward until, overnight, these accepted norms are suddenly disrupted or even displaced by a new reality. We are all vulnerable to this never ending cycle of change because we naturally rely on our personal and professional traditions, our agreed upon norms for living life and leading organizations. These traditions become hardwired, etched in our minds through formal education and a multitude of rules, regulations, and policies. The longer we practice what we know, the more what we know becomes a part of our approach to everything. We become “experienced” and that, my friends, is a cognitive trap.

Here are three ways leaders can avoid the cognitive trap of experience:

1. Intellectual Humility.

Navy SEALs are rugged, courageous, and creative. That’s right, creative. This creativity is how these special operators solve the most dangerous and difficult challenges in the military. I learned, after twenty years in that noble institution, that experience only goes so far, and when experience becomes the plan, you’re headed for trouble. Leaders need to clear their mind of their past victories and defeats before addressing challenges. This practice in professional intellectual humility prepares a leader for the next critical phase of decision making. Be humble! 

2. Intellectual Curiosity.

Once a leader has established an open mind, they need to move on to information gathering. However, this form of data collection isas wide as it is deep in focus. By practicing intellectual curiosity, a leader expands their horizons beyond their direct reports, beyond their ingrained knowledge and experience. They actively seek and listen to outliers, adjacent opinions, and opposing viewpoints. They go further by looking to other companies, industries, and disciplines until they exhaust their sources of insight, internal and external to their organizations. To be curious is a full time requirement for an enlightened and nimble leader. Be curious!     

3. Intellectual Creativity.

The last step in this process is all about execution. An open mind, confronted with old, new, and even oblique information and insight, is now ready to begin solution design. If practical, include your sources in the development of the answer you need to implement. Creativity, done right, is often a messy engagement. Create a brief period for resolution to force the creativity to the surface. People respond to deadlines and this sense of crisis generates interesting and sometimes delightful outcomes. Let this crucible of creativity do its work and then execute. Be creative!

Adopting these three steps won’t be easy. Skipping any of the three will not work either. Each step creates a path to the second until you are ready to make decisions based on reality, not history. Experience has its place in leadership and wisdom and judgement gained from this experience, even more so. Try to avoid applying the same old football plays and formulas that worked in past paradigms and embrace leading with a nimble mindset. You may be surprised how well it works!


Marty Strong

Marty Strong is a retired Navy SEAL, CEO, speaker, and the author of “Be Visionary: Strategic Leadership in the Age of Optimization“. He was a successful account VP and portfolio manager with United Bank of Switzerland for many years after leaving the Navy and then a marketing and business development SVP for a billion-dollar-a-year company. He currently works as CEO and CSO of LGS Management Group, Inc.