“Experience teaches nothing. In fact there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing.”
Our brains are good at creating theories, from our experiences, so that our brain can learn. However when this is done only subconsciously we can be led astray. And in complex situations where it is not easy to see the causal relationships (managing human systems for example) it easier for us to be led astray when we are not consciously thinking about the theory driving our thoughts and decisions.
When we are learning (as little kids) we don’t understand that are brain is creating theories to help us learn. But our brain is creating theories and testing them out. What happens when we push the spoon off our high chair? Lets try it 500 times and see. After repeated experiments, we learn a good deal about how gravity will affect objects no matter where you are, no matter if you are in a highchair, or a stroller or a slide or your mother’s lap… We also learn about how people will react (psychology).
Our brains are great at creating theories and testing them even without us understanding that is what is going on. But managers need to push past this subconscious learning to understand the theories behind their actions or they will spend lots of time on activities that are wasteful, similar to the bird in this webcast:
Worm charming is a behavior birds use to encourage worms to go to the surface so the birds can then eat them. The methods used vary, however tapping earth with feet to generate vibrations is widespread. One theory for why the worms go to the surface is the vibrations are similar to those produced by digging moles, which prey on earthworms.
This bird doesn’t understand the theory behind their instinct. Therefore the bird can’t understand that a worm is not likely to burst through the pavement. Too often managers are applying behaviors without understanding the theory (or without evidence showing that the practice based on the theory is effective – failing to practice evidence based management). And so the managers don’t understand that the behavior will not be successful given the conditions they find themselves in.
Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong Thing – How We Know What We Know – The Illusion of Knowledge
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Reminds me of a quip I use: experience only tells you the track you’ve taken, but nothing about the landscape you could have crossed.