Does Judgment Trump Experience?
It's a question as relevant for business as for the U.S. presidential campaign, says HBS professor Jim Heskett. If "judgment capability" is a function of experience, what kind of experience is important? Does plenty of experience really improve judgment? Online forum now CLOSED.
How is good judgment developed? Whether judgment trumps experience quickly gave way in this month's rich exchange of views to other questions about how (and the extent to which) judgment is developed.
Most of those addressing the question agreed with the recent assertion by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis that judgment trumps experience. While raising many other questions about the column, Michael Scott pointed out that "as the book (by Tichy and Bennis) makes clear, judgment is the quintessential leadership task." As August Ray put it, "… experience without good judgment is worthless; good judgment without experience is still good judgment!" On the other hand, Robert Moses asserted that "a person without experience is very unlikely to have good judgment; experience is the wheel that grinds and hones." And William Welsh reminded us of the Oscar Wilde quote that "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." Andrew Obara assumed a middle ground, saying that "the two mutually enhance each other."
Several felt that the premise depends on the kinds of experience to which one might be referring. Jennifer Davis recalled the "quip that states that some people have 20 years experience and others have had the 1 year of experience 20 times." Stan Heard pointed out, "It is possible to get experience without deriving knowledge or judgment from it." Others suggested the importance of "filters" by which experience is translated into judgment. Among them are an "analytical mind" (Devamalya De), the "personal value system" (Fabina Schonholz), and a "compelling vision" (Joel Whitaker).
Some dismissed the question as too simplistic, in the process posing other more interesting propositions for consideration. Tony Wanless emphasized the importance of knowing the way leaders learn from experience, suggesting the need for "a synthesis of thinking that adds value to the experience." Ludwig Toledo stated, "Common sense is at the basis of good judgment," raising the question of how and whether common sense is informed by experience. Several questioned whether judgment or experience could be defined clearly enough to even address the premise. For example, B. V. Krishnamurthy commented, "It is … important to define good judgment—good from whose perspective?"
Few questioned that good judgment can be acquired, possibly at some risk and cost of mistakes. This still leaves us with the question of whether it can be taught. (Michael Hogan and Al Scheid both expressed doubts about this.) But if it can be taught, can it be done more efficiently and at lower risk than in the "school of hard knocks" assumed in many responses? (David White's comment that "… the only way to improve judgment is to make mistakes" was typical of these.) Can, for example, professional schools play some role in this effort? If so, what kind of training would be required for those teaching "judgment"? To what degree could this supplement and perhaps accelerate a process of individual self-discovery in the real world? What do you think?
The publication of a new book, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, by Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy warrants attention if for no other reason than the range of experiences that they bring to the topic. The event coincides with an issue that has arisen in the U.S. presidential campaign, an issue of broad relevance: Does judgment trump experience?
In their book, the authors have undertaken the formidable task of describing judgment and how good judgments are formed and carried out, based on observations of successful and unsuccessful leaders. They assert that "making judgment calls (especially about people, strategy, and crises) is the essential job of a leader" and go on to say that "with good judgment, little else matters; without good judgment, nothing else matters." To make good judgment calls, a successful leader must, among other things: have strong character and courage, be a good learner, be a creator of knowledge with a storyline (comprising ideas, values, and ways of generating emotional energy for the organization) and a teachable point of view, in addition to possessing good judgment. There is no mention of experience, although in a "Handbook for Leadership Judgment" in the back of the book, in discussing the importance of self-knowledge, it is posited that judgment capability (my italics) is a function of experience.
At the risk of oversimplification, according to the authors, good judgment is characterized as a process of preparation (sensing and identifying the need for judgment calls, framing and naming the judgment call, and mobilizing and aligning the right people to carry it out), making the judgment call, making execution happen, and learning and continuously adjusting after the call is made. Good leaders use knowledge of self as well as that of social networks, stakeholders, and the organization. The authors don't believe that judgment comes naturally. But they are sure it can be learned, even though they aren't sure how to teach it.
Fast forward to a column by the authors titled "Judgment Trumps Experience," that appeared this past autumn in the November 29 issue of The Wall Street Journal. In it, they argue that judgment is much more important than experience. "Wisely-processed" experience can contribute to judgment. But past experience can also prevent wise judgments. Without it, a leader can proceed with fresh insight "unfettered by experience."
This raises a number of questions. In selecting leaders, does one have to choose between experience and judgment? If "judgment capability" is a function of experience, what kind of experience is relevant? Do crises or the unexpected provide better opportunities for the right kind of experience than more normal situations? We know how to measure experience; but just how is judgment measured? How do we know that recent decisions represent good judgment? How much time is required for decisions to be proven wise or not? Given the need to establish priorities, is relevant experience in organizations that have performed well worth more or less than someone's opinion of a person's judgment? Does judgment trump experience? What do you think?
To read more:
Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis, Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).
Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy, "Judgment Trumps Experience," The Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), November 29, 2007, p. A19.