Can you lead, govern, manage, coach, mentor or teach what you have never done? The essential role of experience.

How well do you really know what you’re doing? Have you done this, or some variation of it, before? The best examples are politicians (who have never served) giving military advice. Or management consultants who have never managed anything. Or coaches and TV analysts who have never played the game. Is experience unnecessary for success? Is real-time experience, ie learning on the job, enough? Is abstract experience enough? Or should you have lived in the trenches before leading, governing, managing, coaching, mentoring or teaching?

Abstract experience

I’ve had partners at management consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG who tell me they don’t want graduates from management, technology or finance programs, that they prefer graduate students in mathematics, engineering, history and political science. The conversation took place when the consultants came to my university for a student briefing. I was reminded – by all three – that coming to a b-school was a bit unusual as they are looking for problem solvers with no particular disciplinary loyalties (like business). I concluded that they may have fooled us all, because not everything students learn in b-school is relevant or transferable to real business. Fair enough, but engineering? Yes, of course, because – as it was explained to me – engineers are once and always about problem solving. (Although I’m still confused about historians and political scientists.)

I’ve thought about it a lot since I learned the essence of future experience. I concluded that there is something called “abstract experience” that can be applied to problem solving. Who knew? With this definition, “experience” does not need to be rooted in specific domains. It’s horizontal, not vertical.

The question: can you be trained to be a health management consultant if you have very little management or health care knowledge? (The answer to this question might explain why some clients are dissatisfied with their management consultants.) While consulting “techniques” can save time, many clients don’t have the time to wait for their consultants are ready to solve the problems. (This may explain why consultants like to hire domain experts from their clients.)

Other abstractions are derived from analyses, books, articles, principles, and best practices used by those trying to convert all of this into applied relevance with hard-to-find artifacts of real experience. Sometimes ‘cases’ and ‘stories’ are used to improve relevance, but here too there are still huge gaps between what is described as experience and what applies to solving real problems.

In the end, second-order experience always struggles for relevance and applicability. Those who rely on something other than real experience try to bridge the gap between abstract and real experience with so many analyses, books, articles, principles and best practices, cases and stories as possible, although they can never completely close the gap. Or they completely ignore the gap and teach tools and techniques that can be used to enable problem solving.

Experience in the trenches

The experience gained by “sitting on the chair” is very different from the abstract experience. In the hands of insightful practitioners now tasked with, for example, teaching, hands-on experience bridges the gap between simulated and real problem solving. Yes, it sounds like the age-old arguments about the relative importance of theory versus practice. That said, the knowledge gained from sitting in the chair undoubtedly adds to the abstract or theoretical experience. Ideas are also “visceral,” something abstractions can never contribute to problem solving.

The experience in the trenches provides content, context and “feel”. As someone who has taught undergraduate and graduate students, I can attest to the value of the experience I gained outside of academia. As a practitioner and consultant, I can relate this experience to “teaching” – in my case – enterprise technology management. Without this experience, my classes would stop at the door of problem solving.

The same goes for leadership, governance, management, coaching and mentoring. Although abstract experience can help, nothing replaces experience in the trenches. if the goal is to solve real problems. But if the goal is to provide intellectual stimulation and knowledge sharing with theory, principles, and tools, then abstract experience provides an adequate framework.

Experience partnerships

Both types of experience have their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, goals determine the best mix of strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the abstract experience is a good introduction to problem solving. Perhaps “theory” has its own intellectual rewards. Perhaps real experience builds on – or informs – theoretical experience as part of the problem-solving journey. Partnerships must be defined around objectives. If the goal is real problem solving, then leading, governing, managing, coaching, mentoring, and teaching without real experience will be insufficient. But if the goal is principled, theoretical learning, then abstract experience will do just fine.

Leading, governing, managing, mentoring, mentoring and teaching must involve an active partnership with abstract and in-the-trench experience. But how? This is where open-mindedness must prevail. Custodians of abstract experience must seek experience in the trenches before leading, governing, managing, mentoring, mentoring, or teaching. Trench experience keepers should research theory, principles, and best practices to deepen their understanding of problem solving. As always, experience counts. If the goal is to make money, reduce costs, expand markets and acquire customers, then experience in the trenches should prevail. If the goal is to frame the issues, introduce theory, principles, best practices and tools, then the abstract experience is all that is needed. Objectives should define the characteristics of the best partnerships.

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