Experience and Progressions
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In previous Marketing BS posts (here, here, and here), I have compared different countries’ strategies for dealing with COVID-19. With data collected from the past few months, can we identify any commonalties among the nations with the best outcomes? In a May 12 article in the Washington Post, Megan McArdle emphasized the value of experience:
Experience has triumphed over hope almost everywhere. Look again at the countries widely applauded for preventing an epidemic despite trade with China that should have seeded many outbreaks. What do Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong have in common? They are close to China, and they lived through the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.
The countries that survived SARS had a playbook ready to haul out when the next epidemic hit… for all the problems with U.S. institutions, America’s outbreak thus far hasn’t been unusually bad. With about 250 deaths per million citizens, we’re solidly in the middle of the pack. The United States is underperforming Germany and Canada but roughly on par with Switzerland, and we’re doing significantly better than France, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Britain. [Emphasis mine]
McArdle notes that experience has triumphed over hope. I would add that experience has also been shown to triumph over everything, including the quality of national healthcare systems. You can understand that countries with first-hand experience of the SARS outbreak would take seriously the dangers posed by COVID-19. But why didn’t other governments around the world learn from the lessons of those countries? In the aftermath of SARS, the World Health Organization encouraged governments to prepare for the (inevitable) next pandemic: stockpile protective equipment, develop contingency plans, and implement safety protocols.
Countries could hear about the perils of a pandemic, but without having felt the devastation caused by SARS, they lacked the urgency to take “just in case” types of actions (see: California’s cancellation of an emergency response plan).
AI researcher John Salvatier, back in a 2017 blog post, highlighted why experience matters: real-life activities involve a ridiculous amount of detail. To illustrate his point about detail, Salvatier draws on his personal experience with home repair — the process of building some basement stairs:
Stairs seem pretty simple at first, and at a high level they are simple, just two long, wide parallel boards (2” x 12” x 16’), some boards for the stairs and an angle bracket on each side to hold up each stair. But as you actually start building you’ll find there’s a surprising amount of nuance.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there are actually quite a few subtasks.
He lists some of those tasks: cutting both ends of the 2x12s at the correct angles, screwing u-brackets to the main floor, screwing the 2x12s into the u-brackets, attaching the angle brackets, and screwing in the stairs.
Of course, installing a staircase involves more steps (pun intended…). Salvatier explains that each of those tasks requires the completion of multiple subtasks, many of which include specific tools and tricky techniques:
The first problem you’ll encounter is that cutting your 2x12s to the right angle is a bit complicated because there’s no obvious way to trace the correct angles. You can either get creative (there IS a way to trace it), or you can bust out your trig book and figure out how to calculate the angle and position of the cuts.
[Salvatier goes into greater detail to describe several of the subtasks (and sub-subtasks)]
At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences.
An important note: many of these details would be completely INVISIBLE to novices attempting to build their first set of stairs. Without experience, you would be unlikely to know the most effective ways to measure the angle of descent (or realize that lumber warps, or that guide holes prevent misaligned screws, etc.).
Even if you are a stair-building expert, these details could still be invisible, insofar as you don’t consciously think about them during the construction process. You just KNOW how to build stairs.
Experienced people tend to overlook all of the internalized knowledge and skills required to solve a problem or complete a task. Moreover, experienced people — because they see their own expertise in relation to the vastness of their field — can easily lose perspective about how much specialized knowledge they actually possess.
I feel this way when advising portfolio companies. Quite often, I don’t think I know very much at all — most marketing concepts are pretty simple. But then I speak with some bright private equity investors about a possible acquisition and what happens? I can usually diagnose a company’s marketing issues within a 30-minute Zoom call.
I suspect the experienced stair-builder feels the same way: “There’s just not that much to it” — even though the task stymies many other people.
Once again: experience matters.
Obviously, many tasks are more complex than building stairs and many ideas are more nuanced than marketing campaigns. Take, for example, conceiving and implementing a pandemic response plan.
But even parts of your everyday routine can confuse people without relevant experience (something that anyone who has ever tried explaining something to a toddler can attest). Try writing out all of the steps — no matter how small — required to drive a car, bake a cake, or install a dishwasher.
Jason Crawford, author of The Roots of Progress, recently tweeted something that captured my attention:
Theodore Sturgeon wrote 11 novels (in the science fiction and fantasy genres), along with several scripts for the original Star Trek series. Additionally, Sturgeon was a prolific arts critic. In a 1957 magazine article, Sturgeon — tired of endlessly defending science fiction’s reputation as a “low quality” genre — shared his opinion about value, taste, and expertise:
[Science fiction] is indeed ninety-percent crud, but also — Eureka! — ninety-percent of everything is crud. All things — cars, books, cheeses, hairstyles, people and pins are, to the expert and discerning eye, crud, except for the acceptable [ten-percent] which we each happen to like. [Emphasis mine]
Crawford tweeted about the “90% of everything is crap” idea, but I would like to focus on another part of Sturgeon’s phrase: “to the expert and discerning eye.”
Suppose, for instance, that I attended a high school gymnastics competition. To my non-expert eye, 90% of the athletes would look incredible. Because I don’t know anything about the scoring system (let alone the ability to identify precise techniques), I’m not even sure that I could distinguish the best high schoolers from Olympic gymnasts — aside from obvious elements like, “way less flipping.”
I have a very different experience, though, watching and criticizing activities with which I have experience, like improv comedy (I previously taught, coached, and judged improv performers). When viewing an improv show with professionals, like the TV series Whose Line is it Anyway?, I can immediately differentiate between cheap gags and smart ideas, and between masterful performances and one-dimensional comics.
For a clear example of the gap between ignorance and expertise, think about popular media. When a newspaper covers a topic within my sphere of familiarity — like marketing — the analysis often seems misguided and the conclusions are regularly wrong. (Many of those types of articles become fodder for the Marketing BS newsletter).
BUT, what happens when the very same newspaper covers topics OUTSIDE my knowledge base (like artisanal cheese or motorcycle repair)? I usually trust the accuracy and authority of the article. Many of us experience this type of cognitive contradiction, sometimes referred to as the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. Here’s how novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton described the idea and its relationship to the media:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray [Gell-Mann’s] case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper's full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
The complexity of stair-building, Sturgeon’s Law, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect — some of the many obstacles that limit our ability to learn new ideas and skills.
Let’s focus on three major questions:
How can we trust anything we read?
If 90% of everything is crap, how can we find the “good stuff”?
How can we develop proficiency in any subject?
For points 1 and 2, I think the solution involves starting with media platforms you already follow. Evaluate their work through the lens of your own expertise. Even if you don’t find their work insightful or in-depth, you can at least confirm they aren’t getting the fundamentals wrong. Once you are satisfied with the outlet’s ability to get the core ideas right, you should be more comfortable when they discuss topics with which you are less familiar (because you can assume they apply the same rigor of research no matter the subject). This line of thinking explains why I tend to trust the Economist over the New York Times. Both publications feature excellent reporters and stories, but when I read about something I know well in the Times, I regularly identify errors and biases. When I read articles about the same topic in the Economist, the perspectives appear too superficial to hold my attention — but at least I can verify their accuracy, boosting my confidence to trust their other articles.
As for my third question — about developing proficiency in any subject — I believe the most effective method relies on the concept of progressions.
Learning how to swim
During my time in high school and college, I taught both kids and adults how to swim. Can you throw a non-swimmer into a pool and trust they’ll just “figure it out”? Despite anecdotes about the effectiveness of that method, I doubt it would work. Quite simply, humans do not possess an instinctive ability to swim.
In the same way that building a staircase requires specific information about lumber, trying to beat Michael Phelps in a 100-meter freestyle demands precise technique. Teaching high-level race strategy to a new swimmer is obviously a waste of time and energy.
Instead, as swimming instructors, we broke every task down into “progressions.”
Consider the basic goal of “swimming 10 feet without drowning.” Before a child can even begin to reach that point, they need to understand how to do a number of things:
Put their face in the water.
Blow out air when underwater (so they don’t get water up their nose).
Make their body horizontal in the water (instead of vertical, the natural inclination).
Kick to create forward thrust.
Reach with arms to move forward (and not backward).
Reduce their sense of panic.
As swimming instructors, we developed games to teach all of these required elements:
Counting their fingers under the water.
Blowing bubbles with both their mouth and nose.
Floating on both their back and front.
Kicking on the side of the pool or with kickboards.
Scooping and moving water with their arms and hands.
Playing in the water, so the environment is more comfortable.
After a student demonstrates proficiency with those skills, they could put them together and begin moving through the water. Instructors used the principle of progressions to teach more advanced skills like diving and the butterfly stroke. By breaking any skill down into small parts, most people can eventually achieve a level of competence.
When I worked at General Assembly, we created a “Marketing Standards Board” that applied the concept of progressions to the career development of CMOs. The general overview: because CMOs require a breadth and depth of skills, providing a person with executive-level training can be counterproductive if they were missing fundamental skills in some areas.
The Marketing Standard Board, composed of a dozen leaders in the field, identified three “levels” of marketing skills, with the philosophy that a person needed to demonstrate mastery of one level before moving on to the next one:
Level 1 “Foundation”: the skills required by entry-level roles. People gain exposure to major areas of corporate operations, like customer insight, creative development, marketing channels, and marketing analytics.
Level 2 “Application”: the bundles of competencies that help a person conceive and implement strategies in a marketing specialization like brand, acquisition, retention/loyalty, or analytics/insight.
Level 3 “Leadership”: the insights required to direct organization-wide initiatives, in areas like business, customer experience, technology, or people/organizations.
According to this model, before a person can become an executive who specializes in “Customer Experience,” they should have acquired a series of real-world experiences running brand and retention programs, along with a firm grasp of customer insight and creative development.
You can’t learn the nuances of the customer experience from a seminar with any more success than you can learn how to build a staircase from an instruction manual.
Or, as we have seen in the last few months, you can’t adequately prepare for a global pandemic if you’ve never experienced anything like it during your entire career — or your country hasn’t dealt with anything of a similar scale in more than a century.
Experience is visceral and it matters.
Keep it simple and stay safe,
If you enjoyed this article, I invite you to subscribe to Marketing BS — the weekly newsletters feature bonus content, including follow-ups from the previous week, commentary on topical marketing news, and information about unlisted career opportunities.
Edward Nevraumont is a Senior Advisor with Warburg Pincus. The former CMO of General Assembly and A Place for Mom, Edward previously worked at Expedia and McKinsey & Company. For more information, including details about his latest book, check out Marketing BS.