The 6-Year-Old in the Room

The 6-Year-Old in the Room

student-raising-his-handWhen I work with clients as they analyze whether a candidate is a good fit for a position, I hear one comment more than any other:

“I’d like someone with industry experience.”

“Why?” I ask

“Isn’t it obvious?” my client replies, surprised by my question.

Nope. Not in my book. The reasoning for this experience bias isn’t obvious at all. And moreover, it’s often misguided.

So, now it’s your turn to ask why? Let’s start by taking a look at the innovation record of “industry experience.”

  • The radio industry did not discover the transistor
  • The telephone industry did not come up with the mobile phone
  • The gaslight industry did not develop the electric light
  • Makers of horse-drawn carriages did not replace their product with the automobile
  • Film camera makers were in la-la land when photography went digital
  • The railroad industry didn’t fund the Wright brothers or build the first planes

I could go on forever.

So why is your industry different? It’s not. The more entrenched we are in a given field, the less likely (or willing) we’ll be to create or recognize the next great innovation in the workplace.

When Jack Dorsey, the famously innovative co-founder of Twitter, started Square to allow anyone, anywhere to process credit-card payments, he was looking to make a major breakthrough. So he didn’t look for people with industry experience. In fact, he avoided them.

“I didn’t have a finance background, my co-founders didn’t, and we didn’t hire anyone who worked in finance until we reached 25 employees,” Dorsey said in an Inc. magazine interview. “We get to design what we want to see in the world rather than doing what other people think should be done.”

Don’t be afraid to follow his example.

I recommend specifically looking for some folks with no experience in your field, and mixing them into the company with your industry-savvy crew. In fact, try bringing in someone with no business experience at all—as long as she has all the right attributes for the role.

I call this person the 6-year-old in the room, because she’s got a lot to learn, so she asks a lot of questions: “Why?” and “What’s that for?” and “Who decided that?” Your experienced people might even get a bit exasperated with it. But—particularly in marketing or product and service design—this 6-year-old inquisitiveness could also revolutionize your business.

It’ll sound something like this: “Why don’t we try X?”


2 thoughts on “The 6-Year-Old in the Room

  1. Michael Aitken - July 30, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    We just hired a new sales manager with sales experience, but from a different industry. Your article reminded me why I was such a strong advocate of her hire, and forwarded your insights to her with a challenge “feel free to question anything.” Encouraging her to use and share the advantages of her unique experiences gave her more confidence. What was a perceived weakness, is now a strength, and the freedom to jump in and mix it up with the more industry “experienced.” I immediately sensed she also took the challenge as a vote of confidence and recognition that we value her talents and skills, and value this over industry specific experience.

    Thanks Bill!

    • Bill Munn - August 1, 2013 at 9:09 am

      Thanks for sharing this, Mike. A great example with great insights. It’s a huge help to everyone when we share our own stories.


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