Monday, August 25, 2008

Experience doesn't pay?

I came across this passage in an advance copy of a book by Fortune editor at large Geoff Colvin. It's titled Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (Portfolio). Won't be out until mid-October, but its seemed timely on the heels of the Olympics:

Most of us would be embarrassed to add up the total hours we’ve spent on our jobs and then compare that number with the hours we’ve given to other priorities that we claim are more important, like our families; the figures would show that work is our real priority. Yet after all those hours and all those years, most people are just okay at what they do.

In fact the reality is more puzzling than that. Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started. Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill—“the correlations,” concluded some of the leading researchers, “are roughly zero.” Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.

The most recent studies of business managers confirm these results. Researchers from the INSEAD business school in France and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School call the phenomenon “the experience trap.” Their key finding: While companies typically value experienced managers, rigorous study shows that, on average, “managers with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes.”

Bizarre as this seems, in at least a few fields it gets one degree odder. Occasionally people actually get worse with experience. More experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; general physicians also become less skilled over time at diagnosing heart sounds and X-rays. Auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations.

What is especially troubling about these findings is the way they deepen, rather than solve, the mystery of great performance.

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