The Key to Business Success - Rookies? - With Liz Wiseman

Oct 15, 2014
4 Min Read

The rapidly changing workplace means that we can’t rely on yesterday’s knowledge to keep organizations competitive, argues a new book. Why it may be time to stop relying on experience and turn to another source.

If you could be a rookie at work again, would you?

You might immediately think, “heck, no” considering all the mistakes you made when you were new to the job.

But if you think harder, you might begin to realize that even though you stumbled sometimes, you were a rookie with passion, with drive and with an innovative mindset.

What happened to that person?

That’s what Liz Wiseman believes a lot of people wonder. As author of a new book, “Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work,” Wiseman argues that in our rapidly changing workplace, experience can be a curse while inexperience can be a blessing.

She says that through her research, she finds rookies often have a different mindset at work that makes them operate with higher levels of self-awareness and move faster than their experienced peers. Because of their inexperience, rookies are driven to ask questions of those with greater expertise. As a result, they often walk away with better solutions. A more experienced worker, she finds, is more likely to solve an issue on his own without seeking outside expertise or simply follow standard practices.

Wiseman says that while some may consider rookies to be bumbling clods, the reality is that many rookies have nothing to lose so they are often open to new possibilities. They don’t get bogged down in old practices. They are optimistic as they explore new territories, focus on doing things differently and don’t worry about why they can’t do something.

Wiseman and her research team looked at nearly 400 workplace scenarios, noting how rookies took on work assignments compared to veteran workers. That enabled them to identify traits of successful and unsuccessful rookies and veterans.

They found the distinct rookie smarts mindset included:

  • The “backpacker” rookies who had a mindset unencumbered by past practices or experience. They were open to new possibilities, explored new territory and didn’t get mired in stale best practices.
  • The “hunter-gatherer” rookies looked for experts to help them. They then brought those ideas back to the team, along with the resources necessary to meet challenges.
  • The “firewalker” rookies may have lacked confidence in certain situations, but took small, calculated steps. These rookies moved fast and sought feedback to stay on track.
  • The “pioneer” rookies kept things simple and looked to meet core needs. These rookies improvised, pushed boundaries and were tireless.

To foster the rookie mindset, even in more experienced employees, Wiseman suggests that managers should “just push people out of their comfort zones,” she says. “I think you can ask people to sort of pivot away from what they normally do.”

For example, you wouldn’t ask a sales professional to suddenly design a new IT process, but that sales professional could be asked to use his skills in interpersonal communications skills in other areas.

“Managers need to look deeply at the fundamental strengths of an employee and think, ‘Is there something there that I can draw on?’” Wiseman says.

Wiseman says that organizations will see a payoff in fostering the rookie mindset because employees are less likely to become bored and disengaged when they’re issued new challenges several times a year. In addition, since many companies don’t always have bonuses or promotions to hand out on a regular basis, keeping employees challenged will help them feel their careers are being developed and boost morale.

In addition, she says that many managers could see their own workloads eased if more employees are challenged regularly. “Let them start doing other things and you will see your load is considerably lighter. It’s a lazy man’s way to employee satisfaction,” she says, laughing.

At the same time, Wiseman says that if employees don’t feel like their managers are embracing the idea of a rookie mindset, they can do it themselves.

“Be quick on the ‘yes,’” she advises. “Say ‘yes’ to things and then you can figure out how to do them. Continually sign up to do hard things.”

Among her suggestions to move into a rookie mindset:

  • Ask naïve questions. Ask the questions a newcomer would ask. Or, ask a novice to define the questions for you.
  • Seek expert advice. The next time you are faced with a challenge that falls within your area of expertise, avoid the temptation to jump in. Instead, reach out to at least five other experts with your questions.
  • Get your hands dirty. Getting closer to the action can help you stay connected with the needs of your customers, stakeholders or employees.
  • Attach yourself to a problem.  Commit to a challenge and then let it drag you into unknown territory. Unfamiliar places help you to think, rethink and co-create.
  • Spend time with amateurs. Move away from your peer group sometimes to get to know newcomers. Watch how they work and play, and learn from them.

What do you think of fostering a rookie mindset in your career or organization?

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