The following is the transcript from an interview with author of The Secret Life of Decisions, Meena Thuraisingham, and the editor of South Korea’s largest business magazine, MAEIL Business Newspaper, December 2014. The book was translated last year into Korean and in March 2015 into Mandarin…….  

What is the reason that some people become trapped by their experience?

Because it feels safe to rely on what you know. Of course the danger is always that you don’t know what you don’t know. In a fast changing environment where much of what we know is becoming obsolete so quickly, this is a real danger all decision makers must be alert to.

 Do you think leaders of businesses are more prone to falling into this trap?

 The dangers are greater for leaders. Experienced leaders particularly successful ones have to be vigilant. This is because your success gives you a confidence as you advance to increasingly senior levels in an organization… this confidence can sometimes blindside you into thinking that what has worked before will work again. My book provides a number of examples of biases that can potentially blindside even the most experienced leaders amongst us.

 How do leaders guard against falling into this experience trap?

It is possibly only by being more open to the input and advice from others (including criticism) along the way. While this is something most good leaders do naturally, it is especially critical when you are for example working on a complex project or business challenge. The more complex, the more critical it is for you to surround yourself with mentors and trusted others, and dissenters too, who will be prepared to provide you candid/honest advice even if they think you are not going to like/agree with their advice. A failure is only a failure if you don’t learn from it. The people around us can provide us much of that learning. Unfortunately sometimes we are not prepared to open ourselves to constructive criticism along the way.

Experience is necessary for good decisions but it can be double-edged sword as you pointed out in your book. How can leaders extract the right lessons from their experiences?

Yes experience is a double-edged sword. You can draw the right lessons from your experiences but you can also draw the wrong lessons from your experiences. Leaders who develop strong reflective skills, continually challenging their own thinking will extract the right lessons from their experience. For example asking ourselves if this strategy you vested so much of energy and time on is still relevant given the changing market context. Asking what am I not seeing? What critical voices am I not paying attention to? Are there some weak signals I am missing? What of my original assumptions am I refusing to revisit? And so on. My book gives you a whole range of strategies for developing a more reflective thinking style

So habitually `thinking about our thinking’ can prevent you from becoming trapped by experience?

Yes as I mentioned if you continually challenge your own thinking you are less likely to be trapped by your own experience. Again the book provides you success strategies for doing this

You mentioned optimism bias and attachment bias a being experience based. Can you say more on this?

Yes generally as we acquire more and more experience over the years, we get attached to particular ways of doing things and even particular outcomes which in turn makes us optimistic that because they have worked before they will work again. So yes the optimism and attachment biases are 2 biases to watch for when you have a lot of experience.

 Are you suggesting then that you have to step away from the decision self-reflect, and actively seek more advice?

The ability to listen deeply to what people are saying is critical but also to listen out for what people are not saying. Often people are not that honest or open with senior leaders for fear that there may fall out of favour or be viewed as disrespectful. It can be lonely at the top of an organization because you may not always receive honest feedback from the people that work for you. More reason why as a senior leader you need to surround yourself with people who will be courageous in providing you input and feedback about your decisions

 Do you think ensuring more diversity in decision-making groups can ensure the experience trap is avoided?

Yes definitely. There are now several studies from around the world that show that the more diverse a team is, the more creative it becomes in problem solving. But the benefits of diversity only get unleashed if the leader creates a culture in that team where everyone feels comfortable and confident to contribute. If I feel that my leader is unlikely to be open to my ideas I am more likely to keep those ideas to myself. This is a real waste of the team’s talent. So diversity itself is not enough. An inclusive leader is an important part of that equation, a leader that is open to the ideas and perspectives of others and ways of thinking different from his/her own.

It appears that what you are saying is that the danger is greatest when you are faced with a market that is going through major disruption. Do you have to be as concerned when you are operating in a relatively stable market?

There is no market today that is not faced with some disruption. However having said that yes, even in a relatively stable market we must be vigilant. This is because knowledge itself is evolving so rapidly and the speed at which new knowledge is being created, not just because of advancements in technology and science, is amazing. Experience that may have been relevant even 2-3 years ago will not be relevant today. A good example is someone in retailing who has spent all their working life acquiring experience in a store format may have knowledge that is now no longer relevant for new digital formats. The same can be said of banking and other industries that are fast becoming multi-channel in their offerings to customers.

In the book you gave a couple of examples of CEOs who failed in transitioning into an entirely different industry. Do you think a CEOs who switch sector have greater risk of failing?

No it is not so much the fact that they were from a different industry that triggered the failure. It was that during their transition they were not willing or stay open enough to understand how this new environment differed and failed to adapt approaches that may have worked for them before. A leader’s ability to adapt which includes their ability to listen and learn (in some cases unlearn what they have learned!) will determine if they make such transitions (from one industry to another) successfully. It may be interesting to your readers that I have also written a book on why successful executives derail. It is called Derailed! And available on Amazon also.

Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today