Too experienced to learn

Is it possible to be too experienced to learn?

I think it is.

A historian told me about an example from US new recruits in WWII and how marksmanship ability varied among them. Supposedly, recruits from the US countryside performed worse than those from the city. This seems counter-intuitive. After all, men who grew up in the countryside were more likely to have experience using rifles to hunt. Those from the city were probably handling guns for the first time.

But here’s what is supposed to have happened. The more rifle-experienced countryside soldiers already had their established ways to shoot and resisted new training in the skill. Meanwhile, those who grew up in the city had little choice but to follow the instructor’s teaching in order to gain proficiency. They were more open to trying new techniques and being criticized for their novice skill level.

That’s sometimes what I see with businesspeople. It seems like more experienced people can sometimes be less open to trying new things or hearing information that counters their established way of working.

One very experienced individual I met last year came to me with an idea for a new financial product which would be sold to institutional investors. He wanted to go out and hire a mathematician and developer to construct an algorithm to describe the model he wanted to build. Never mind first going to talk to people in the financial services niche he wanted to target and figure out how purchasing decisions are made, or finding out if there was a market for the service, or looking at other options that were out there. He was fascinated by the potential of the product, not the people who would buy and use it.

That itself is risky enough. But, he also had no interest in experimenting first before going out to do the development — which would initially easily cost $50K. It’s not that $50K is a large or small amount of money, it’s that I think he could have learned more by spending a fraction of that buying lunch for his target users and getting to know them.

I’m not against spending money, I’m just against being closed to learning.

Filed in: lean startup