In his book Outliers, published in 2008, Malcom Gladwell claimed that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill was 10,000 hours of practice. In what was possibly one of his best written books, Gladwell wields compelling story-telling devices to make a case for how Bill Gates, the Beatles, and even he spent exactly 10 years to meet the “10,000 Hour Rule” to become experts in their class. With such a tantalizing concept, it’s no wonder Outliers held the #1 position on the New York Times best-sellers list for 11 weeks! The strategy is fairly straight-forward. Practice a specific task that can be accomplished with 20 hours of work per week for 10 years, and presto, you’re an expert. Unfortunately, Anders Ericsson, who conducted the study upon which "the 10,000 Hour Rule" was based, has written that Gladwell had overgeneralized, misinterpreted, and oversimplified the findings of the study (1). Gladwell, himself, also conceded that his book was oversimplified as well. But there’s an even bigger problem with this 10,000 hour rule for acquiring expertise: No one has that amount of time to become an expert, not now, and not in the foreseeable future!
The Demand for Learning Speed
Peter Senge, known for his work around learning cultures and for authoring The Fifth Discipline, stated the issue best, “The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” (2) This demand for learning speed couldn’t have been more obvious in ALLOY’s interviews with leading organizations, such as Verizon, Merck, McDonald’s, Macy’s, SalesForce and others. Without prompting, leaders within each of these organizations made it clear that the challenge of re-skilling, up-skilling, and poly-skilling their workforce was a top priority. A senior leader at Merck explained it most saliently in July of 2019 by saying, “I no longer hire people for their past work experience. I’m looking for future capacity to learn, and learn quickly.” An executive at Veeva explained it this way, “I try to say yes, and be risk-tolerant to every cool opportunity. Today I wear multiple, unrelated hats, and I owe my success to building expertise in multiple fields. We encourage poly-skilling at Veeva too. It keeps employees engaged and is extremely important to our success.” These comments are fitting considering that 90% of CEOs believe their company is facing disruptive change and 70% say their organization does not have the skills to adapt.(3)
These leaders are not over-reacting. A few short years after Gladwell’s book debuted, the half-life of learned skills had fallen to 5 years.(4) This means that the skills you learned 5 years ago are half as valuable today, and the skills you learned 10 years ago are very near to becoming (if are not already) obsolete. Software engineers must now redevelop skills every 12–18 months. Marketing and sales, manufacturing, accounting, as well as law and finance report similar demands. The lead time seems to have been sliced in half, allowing us only 5 years to attain skills, let alone acquire expertise. This challenge is further compounded for organizations, as today’s “career fluid” mindset has reduced the average worker’s tenure to only 4.5 years.(5)
The Response So Far
This discussion is no longer the sole purview of the Learning and Development department, and has rapidly become a central concern of the executive suite as well. Organizations worldwide are scrambling to keep their employees current and develop new levels of expertise quickly. For instance, Amazon shows that it understands that re-skilling their current workforce will save them billions by recently committing to a $750M investment in up-skilling 110,000 employees by 2025. Nestlé, Dell, and Visa are rethinking their corporate university as a connected platform for innovation and leadership development. Data from a recent Deloitte survey shows that 83% of organizations are shifting to flexible, open career models that offer enriching assignments, projects, and experiences rather than a static career progression. The triathlon of re-skilling, up-skilling, and poly-skilling to pursue expertise in new areas has effectively become the competitive race for not only leadership, but the viability of organizations, teams, and individuals. So, with all due respect, Mr. Gladwell, we don’t have 10,000 hours to become an expert!
Non Routine Leaders™ Learn Faster
Based on a multi-year study and adoption of Non Routine Leadership™, ALLOY has observed that such an accelerated rate of learning is not only possible, but is already a reality for many leaders today. One of the defining characteristics of successful Non Routine Leaders™ is that they have learned to acquire deep expertise quickly, and usually in multiple disciplines. From their perspective, this is a necessity for survival in order to address non routine challenges, as well as future growth. However, what’s even more interesting is how Non Routine Leaders go about the leaning and problem-solving process, sometimes without even realizing it.
How Non Routine Leaders™ Learn Faster
Typically, when people encounter a novel or non routine problem, the majority tend to look for ways around the problem. The few fearless problem solvers out there will dive in and begin figuring it out through multiple trials, sometimes building up enough experience (dare I say 10,000 hours worth?) to eventually achieve expertise. Non Routine Leaders™, however, do the exact opposite. They begin with expertise and follow it with experience. In other words, at first sight of a novel or non routine problem they look for one or more better practice frameworks to address the problem. They do this to get a “big picture” understanding of the issue, as well as an understanding of all of its “parts” and how they interrelate. Only after the acquisition of the better practice framework(s), does the experience and trial and error begin.
Imagine an engineer being asked to create a marketing position for her product. A typical engineer might attempt to use her intuition and limited experience to write something that sounds vaguely like marketing copy. An engineer who is a Non Routine Leader™, instead would find 1-3 positioning frameworks written by proven marketing thought leaders. In a very short amount of time, she would be able to determine that there are approximately 4 major parts of marketing positioning—a Target Customer, a Competitor, a Reason to Choose the Product, and Supporting Reasons to Believe in that choice. Upon further reading, she would learn how all the parts relate to each other.
Our research shows that this approach radically reduces the learning curve by weeks, months, or even years! Can you imagine how long it might take the engineer to come up with a marketing position using her intuition alone? Novices do this and, subsequently, spend an inordinate amount of time in trial and error. Similarly “Experienced Non Experts” are typically no different because they employ previously practiced routines that don’t transfer to non routine problems. Worse, they do so with an overconfidence that they are rarely aware of.
This ability to acquire expertise quickly is just one of the many benefits of Non Routine Leadership™. Specifically, it comes from a competency we call “Frame with Expertise.” In short, “Frame with Expertise” is the ability to think in frames* to learn rapidly, while improving the non routine skills of creativity and strategic thinking. Though Anders Ericsson disagrees with Malcom Gladwell’s research interpretation, we are confident he would support this approach. He states in his book Peak, “What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations (ie Frameworks).”(6) In our observation, framing not only helps an individual quickly grasp the concept exponentially faster than novice approaches of trial and error, but, many times it allows that individual to leapfrog past “Experienced Non Experts” who may have years or even decades, more experience.
Speed up Your Learning Today
Does this sound counterintuitive? It is to most. We found that the easiest way to begin developing this competency is to ask a simple question every time you encounter a non routine challenge: “What’s the framework for that?” If you don’t have a helpful framework, that’s your cue to shift from “figuring to framing.“ Begin by Framing with Expertise by finding and leveraging at least one better practice framework. Once you understand the major parts and how they relate to one another, get ready to unlock heightened learning speed that only the few Non Routine Leaders™ experience today!
1 Ericsson, K Anders. “GUEST POST: The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists, K. Anders Ericsson.” Radical Eyes for Equity, 3 Nov. 2014, web.archive.org/web/20190320062202/https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/11/03/guest-post-the-danger-of-delegating-education-to-journalists-k-anders-ericsson/.
2 Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline, vol. number, City of Publication*, Doubleday, 1990
3 Johnson, Dani, and Jen Stempel. “Careers and Learning: Real Time, All the Time.” Deloitte Insights, 28 Feb. 2017, www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2017/learning-in-the-digital-age.html.
4 Thomas, Douglas, and John Seely. Brown. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 2011.
5 Gratton, Lynda, and Andrew Scott. The 100-Year Life. Bloomsbury, 2016.
6 Ericsson, Anders K., and Robert Pool. Peak (p.61): Secrets from the new science of expertise, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
*Thinking in frames is an old concept, originally coined by D.N. Perkins Professor of Education, Emeritus. However, at ALLOY, we believe there is new-found relevancy and new implications for today’s non routine world. One of these implications we found was the ability to acquire deep expertise quickly. To learn more, read “The Rise of the Non Routine Leader”.