When the Secret Sauce Fails

 “I have seen this before. I know exactly how to proceed!” a senior team member triumphantly claims.

Pekka Mattila, 01.03.2013

Suddenly the comments stop and no one dares to question the old sage.


We regard experience highly and for good reason. Experience quickens analysis and speeds up decision-making. In many professions certain seemingly complex decisions and operations become routine with time. It is hard to track or audit the exact process that took us in a certain direction. 

Too little, however, is said about the darker side of experience. In the fullness of time it narrows our vision, turns us myopic and eventually blind, rather than making us more alert and eager to seek new paths and black swans. After several successful decisions and choices we start to believe in our superior track record and acknowledged experience.

We Can Become Impatient

We become bold and impatient and less likely to be interested in the opinions of others. What valuable advice could they possibly offer with their tiny exposure to similar situations? Arrogance lubricates a journey gone astray. 

Our experience equips us with a number of secret sauces and silver bullets that are easily at hand when a situation arises that may resemble one we’ve encountered earlier. The higher the emotional and time pressures, the higher the odds that we’ll get it all wrong.

Under these stressful circumstances we see what we want to see. We look for evidence that confirms the hard-wired beliefs set in our brains and relies on auto-piloting and fast mechanical processing. As Walter Lippman bluntly put it, “We do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see.”

It's Like a Friday

It is rather like the Fridays when we expect friends for dinner and the afternoon becomes a nightmare at the office, making our plans to leave early to prepare the evening’s gastronomical pleasures moot. Shall we choose to prepare a whole new menu, something novel we’ve wanted to try but haven’t, or go for our signature, tried and approved three-course meal?

I guess most of us opt for the well-trod path, at least if we are not aggressive risk-seekers. The only haunting doubt is whether we’ve already served that menu to that evening’s guests on another panicstricken Friday night.

The commonly cherished tacit knowledge may be the most dangerous of all. A person with a renowned wealth of knowledge is closed to questioning and auditing. It would be almost undignified to probe, especially as a peer or junior colleague. But we may never know whether it was genius, merely a gut feeling or just an outburst of cognitive bias that lubed a shortcut to a deceptively smooth solution.

What Is the Message Here?

We should be careful, even wary, when we tap into our experience. Experience is best drawn upon in situations that are repetitive and where variance is low. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman said that firefighters’ repeated practice in weighing the risks posed by specific types of fires and their experience in extinguishing those fires gives them an unrivalled ability to read a situation intuitively and identify crucial causal patterns.

But few of us are firefighters, plastic surgeons or gardeners. Most of us encounter a frustrating variety of cases and anomalies. Thus, we should not put too much trust in the judgment of seasoned experts in fields where challenges vary greatly, where luck determines success, and where great gaps in time and causality may exist between action and eventual feedback. There may be no take-away or learning to build on later that may look the same but is profoundly different.

Back to Our Sage

Back to the experienced sage. If the unlikely becomes reality and the junior team member dares to propose a change, along the lines of, “I agree with you on what you said, but how about also approaching the problem from another perspective?” Ideally, this is a starting point for fruitful interaction and co-creativity. Nonetheless, often such initiative falls flat and engenders a choleric note, “We tried it once in a similar situation and it just did not work. Why should we waste time and energy again when we already know the outcome!” Except for the fact that it was 15 years ago…

PROFILE MAGAZINE 1/2013 page 17


Currently reading: Aalto Leaders' Insight: When the Secret Sauce Fails

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