Rookie Smarts: A book review by Bob Morris

Rookie SmartsRookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work
Liz Wiseman
Harper Business (2014)

Quaerere Eruditionem: Always “Seek Learning”

In her previously published books, Liz Wiseman shares her thoughts about the power of multiplication, a force that can have either positive or negative impact. For example, companies will do all they can to multiply profitable sales while also doing all they can to reduce (if not eliminate) waste. The meaning of the terms such as multiply and diminish remains the same but their significance is determined almost entirely by the given context. That is true of individuals as well as of organizations. For example, one of the keys to a successful career is diminishing ignorance by increasing knowledge. I realized long ago that one of the most serious mistakes to make at work and elsewhere is to make decisions based on what you think you know but, in fact, don’t.

Why did Wiseman write Rookie Smarts? She explains: “This book is about living and working perpetually on a learning curve. It is about why we do our best work when we are new to something, striving up that steep ascent.” This is especially important now when new information is vast, fast, and fleeting. Her book is also for “leaders of organizations who must ensure their workforce remains vital and competitive. It is for corporate talent management, learning, and coaching professionals who must ensure the talent inside their organization is engaged and vibrant” Rookies are those who have little (if anything) to unlearn and little (if any) prior experience when assigned to a task, duty, or responsibility that is totally unfamiliar to them. Many managers need the information, insights, and counsel that Wiseman provides in this book if they know little (if anything) and have little (if any) prior experience insofar as supervising rookies is concerned.

Wiseman shares the results of a survey conducted by members of her research team. They studied almost 400 workplace scenaria, comparing and contrasting the performance “rookies” and “veterans” while completing various work assignments. As she explains, “We defined a rookie as someone who had never done that type of work and a veteran as someone who had previous experience with that type of work — both regardless of their age.” Their work yielded four surprising observations:

“First, rookies are strong performers…performing at a slightly higher level than veterans. Second, rookies have a unique success profile: They were fast to act, marshaled resources, found simple solutions, persisted along a path, and focused on solving the right problem. Third, rookies aren’t always what they seem. They listen more, are more likely to ask for help, believe they have a lot more to learn, and learn faster.” Finally, experience creates dangerous blind spots. Our analysis identified a number of areas where experience created blinders that narrowed the veteran’s focus and kept him stuck in a rut. With experience some habits, and once we form a habit, our brain stops working.”

Wiseman discusses all this in Chapter 1, Pages 25-26.

Here’s my take:

1. It is much easier to learn than to unlearn. Hence the importance of hiring intelligence and character, then provide whatever training may be necessary.

2. There is great value in cross-functional training (at least in basics) so that those trained increase their understanding — and [begin] appreciation [end] — of what associates are expected to do. Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots has done this for years to increase “bench strength.” For example, he has defensive backs become familiar with offensive plays so that they can fill in at running back or wide receiver, if needed. Also, on the offensive line, he expects everyone to be able to play guard, tackle, or center, if needed.

3. A healthy organization is a “total learning” organization. There is always something new to learn about what to do and how to do it. Therefore, knowledge may have a limited shelf life but learning skills do not. In fact, frequent use strengthens them.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Wiseman’s coverage in the first four of eight chapters:

o The New Workscape (Pages 6-10)
o A Question of Experience (20-22)
o The Learned and the Learners (22-24)
o The Rookie Smart Mindset: Backpacker, Hunter-Gatherer, Firewalker, and Pioneer (27-34)
o The Right Terrain (34-38)
o The Fountain of Wishful Thinking (41-42)
o Caretakers Versus Backpackers (47-53)
o The Backpacker’s Way (53-65)
o Building Rookie Smarts (65-68)
o Local Guides Versus Hunter-Gatherers (75-84)
o The Hunter-Gatherer’s Way (84-92)
o Building Rookie Smarts (92-95)
o Seekers and Finders (95-96)
o Marathoners Versus Firewalkers (101-107)
o The Firewalker’s Way (107-118)
o Building Rookie Smarts (118-119)

In Chapters 5-8, Wiseman discusses Pioneers, The Perpetual Rookie, Rookie Revival, and The Rookie Organization, followed by six appendices in which she provides a wealth of invaluable supplementary material about the research process, FAQs, learning experiments, learning itineraries, Rookies and perpetual Rookies, and a discussion guide that can serve as a “fire starter,” including kindling and sparks to keep the conversation “blazing.”

When concluding her brilliant book, Liz Wiseman observes, “Rookie smarts isn’t an age or experience level; it is state of mind — one that is available to those willing to unlearn and relearn. It is also a choice. As the world of work speeds up, we can either slow down and get left behind, or we can quicken our step and keep up. It is a choice between the dull ache of stagnation and the short-lived discomfort of unlearning what has worked for us in the past, and then relearning what we need to know now.”

In this context, I am again reminded of a situation years ago, after a substantial tuition increase, Harvard’s then president, Derek Bok, was besieged by irate parents who demanded an explanation. His response? “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

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