Why Experience Can Be the Enemy of Innovation

“How come we’ve never heard of you? Everyone who works here has been in the industry for at least 25 years.” I was told this earlier this year by a VP of a company I consulted for. I sensed some hostility from his comment. Of course, I was brought in to help shake things up precisely because this company has been doing business the same way they’ve always done it.

What you know limits what you can imagine. – Bill Taylor

Innovation has many enemies; one of them is experience. Experience is often lauded as a critical component of expertise and wisdom. Indeed, without experience, it’s hard to imagine how one would navigate the intricacies of business, science, or even day-to-day life. However, in the context of innovation, experience can sometimes serve as a double-edged sword. While it may offer a solid foundation, experience can also limit one’s vision, restricting innovative thought.

The Limiting Frame of Reference

When someone relies heavily on their past experience, they build a frame of reference that makes sense based on what has worked for them before. While this frame is helpful in many situations, it also sets a boundary for what is deemed possible or realistic. Once the parameters are set, thinking outside of them becomes challenging, not just for the individual but also for the teams they lead. This type of thinking is often labeled as “That’s how we’ve always done it” syndrome.

The Illusion of Expertise

Experience often leads to a feeling of expertise, which can lead to overconfidence. The more you know about a particular field, the more likely you are to think that you’ve got it all figured out. This can result in a mindset that’s closed off to fresh perspectives. When you assume that your way is the best and only way, you inadvertently stifle innovation by disregarding alternatives. The illusion of expertise makes the fertile ground for creativity barren.

Risk Aversion

Those who have extensive experience often have something to lose. Whether it’s reputation, career stability, or financial security, the risks of innovation can seem to outweigh the benefits. Experienced individuals sometimes avoid pursuing unconventional ideas due to the fear of failure or the unwillingness to be proven wrong. This risk-averse mentality can suffocate the innovation process, where failure should be seen as just another step toward groundbreaking solutions.

Ingrained Habits and Thought Patterns

Habits are hard to break. Experienced professionals have years or even decades of ingrained practices, thought patterns, and approaches that have served them well. But innovation isn’t about doing the same thing slightly better; it’s about doing something entirely different or solving problems from a new angle. Breaking free from deeply rooted habits requires a conscious effort, something that people with a lot of experience may find difficult to muster.

The Way Forward: Balancing Experience and Innovation

All this doesn’t mean we should discount experience altogether. Rather, it should be balanced with a willingness to question, explore, and experiment. Inviting diverse opinions, promoting a culture that celebrates curiosity, and valuing the ‘beginner’s mind’—a mindset open to possibilities—can mitigate the limiting effects of experience on innovation.

So, if you find that your experience might be curbing your innovative instincts, remember that the best innovations often come from questioning the status quo. While experience is undoubtedly invaluable, it should never be a wall that confines your thinking. Instead, let it be a stepping stone to broader horizons, where the only constant is change and innovation is the oxygen that fuels progress.

Bottom line: Innovation doesn’t respect tradition. And, experience is one of the foundations of tradition. Don’t let what you know limit what you can imagine. In other words: Don’t let experience become a blocker of innovation.