Academics versus Experience – do you take one path or blend multiple?

Most people approach problems from one of two ways: Academics or Experience. The Academic looks at the problem theoretically breaking it down into its component parts. The Experience path looks at the problem through the lens of what they have done before.

I fall squarely into the “Gray-area” camp. Most of the time it is difficult for anyone who falls firmly into a single camp to get the best solution. The best results come from blending multiple approaches. It’s more difficult to do this because you need to practice multiple approaches but the blending gives you more tools to work with.

The strongest metals are alloys where you merge different materials to create something better from the combination.


When should you value specialized experience versus generalized experience?

Not all experience is created equal. In the real estate brokerage world, some end up specializing in a subset of their local market and other specialize in the general needs of a business. If you need to understand the exact nuances of the medical office building market in Alpharetta Georgia, you are going to have a small list to reach out to. If you want to understand the typical real estate needs of a Fortune 500 company, you would reach out to a different set of people.

Neither experience is better or worse than the other but the localized broker has developed a very specific and specialized experience. If they were to branch out into other areas they would suddenly have less time to devote to the constantly changing world they had just left but would gain an additional degree of generalization. This is specialized versus generalized experience.

Some problems that we need to solve may require a degree of both specialized and generalized experience. If I were plotting a data center strategy for a Fortune 500 company, I would start with company needs but quickly require more specialized knowledge as the strategy got more and more specific. This type of project requires both needs but it’s easy to see where to start.

If, however, you were starting by trying to determine a strategy for a specific site within the portfolio you could start with either specialized or generalized experience. Both are equally valuable for getting the final answer but would approach the problem very differently.

This difference in viewing the world is one of the most fundamental differences between the two groups. People with specialized experience deeply understand the problems and issues that impact their world but can often have difficulty elevating themselves from the weeds to understand the broader implications of a problem. Generalized experience can lead you down the road of understanding broad problems but can cause you to miss the details that will impact the on-going day-to-day. Not everyone fits this pattern, but generally, this is how each group would first approach a problem.

It’s important to understand the perspectives of the people solving your problems. Are they looking at the micro or macro level of the problem? Even if they are looking at both, are they giving each side the same weight? Should they be giving each side the same weight? Are they changing their view as the project goes on?

If you can balance this problem then you’ve started down the road of either leadership or Program Management, but that’s a discussion for another day.

How’s your personal plan coming along?

It’s that time when everyone starts to develop their goals and objectives for the next year. Reviews and appraisals are being completed. Company objectives are being set. Personal objectives are being setup to align. It’s a time for planning!

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the corporate one-year objectives planning as I think it can force people to not adjust as the year goes on. However, planning, in general, is at the top of my list of things that everyone should be constantly doing.

My contention is that every single person should have a plan for their next two years at all times. That plan should be based on what you are looking for out of both your life and career to help ensure you are pushing yourself where you want to go. Mine is based on answering the following questions:

  • Am I getting new, valuable experience from my current role? Do I see myself continuing to get new and valuable experience over the next two years?
  • Am I balancing work and life? Where is my stress level currently?
  • Am I working with people that both challenge me and are good to work with? Am I more happy than not day-to-day?
  • Have I progressed in ways that make me a better person (work and life)? If not, what will I do to become better?

That’s it, only a few questions. No one can predict that they will be burned out next July or that they will suddenly get stuck in a role they don’t like in 18 months. What they can understand is whether they are in a position to continue growing and exceeding personal goals. If not, it’s time for a change.

One thing here: none of my personal goals are around money. It’s always hard to set monetary goals for yourself because so often they are out of your hand. Even in commission or contract roles, money is usually secondary to building a solid reputation and earning client trust. Do those and the money will follow.

Every plan should be different because no two people are the same. Even my questions change every few years. It was probably five years ago that I explicitly started to focus on new experiences. I imagine that in another 10 years I’ll be thinking more about leveraging my past experiences into a unique role of some sort (the best-laid plans and all that…).

The trap of the Echo Chamber.

A truism in this world is that we all end up reading our own press. Whenever someone clicks the “Like” button on one of my posts here or on LinkedIn, I get a sudden rush of feeling important. It is easy to start thinking about how smart you are because you got some clicks.

Similarly, we tend to interact with the same people regularly at work. We learn their patterns and what they like/dislike. Over time, all presentations and analyses are put together to meet the patterns of those we interact with instead of a neutral benchmark. It’s an easy pattern to fall into because it helps make life easier because putting things into the format and voice that is expected reduces the friction involved in getting to complete.

The Echo Chamber is that place where the things we experience become the reality we react to. When you work in the Boise, Idaho real estate market, it’s easy to think that it’s a big market – because for you and your customers it is. But if you want to dominate Boise, should you do things the way they have always been done or should you bring in some of the appropriate best practices from New York, Chicago, London and elsewhere?

When we do work, we tend to fall back on our experiences. If you rely too heavily on experience you end up doing things the same way without changing or improving; you start to miss out on nuance. Your experience becomes your Echo Chamber.

There’s a great saying: never believe your own press clippings. The story as it exists in your echo chamber is never the reality anyone else experiences.

For a long time I thought data analytics was a common skillset.

The first 10 years of my career were both blessing and curse. A blessing because I had the opportunity to work with truly talented people around me in just about every position. Even those that were complete PIAs had skills that are top 2%. A curse because for a long time I thought that I was in a common organization. When all of your experiences involve talented people, it’s easy to believe talented people are everywhere.

Slowly I came to realize that talent is a rare and difficult thing to find. The group that had been gathered slowly began to disband and change. New people came in that couldn’t live up to the history. I had more experiences with other companies that didn’t have the same talent. I came to reposition the talent that I had seen around me as a truly special occurrence.

Data analytics is a particular skill that was all around me. I was surrounded by many that could look at numbers and instinctively see patterns and know if there were issues. Excel ability was table stakes, most could go several tools deeper as needed. I remember one fun week several of us spent debating the validity of introducing simulations into our standard analytics packages.

Over the past years, I have come to understand how hard data analytics is to most people. Looking at numbers and seeing anything but a wall of numbers is a skill that few have. Even those that can look at numbers and see an opportunity for analysis struggle to come up with the right framework for presenting those results. Knowing how to craft numbers into a story is real trouble.

This all may seem obvious and intuitive to you but my point is that this was a blindspot to me because my experience was skewed in a certain direction. What are your blindspots because of your background? We all have them.

If you don’t know your personal 2 year plan take some time to think through it today.

I’ve been managing for a couple, three years now.  It always surprises me to find myself in this position.  But it is fascinating to watch myself in it.

My biggest question in one-on-ones is always “where do you see yourself in 2 years.”  I’m sure people get sick of hearing me ask it but I cannot stress to them how important I think this question is.  Two years is always right around the corner.  It’s far enough in the future that you have to plan for it but not so far that it cannot still sneak up on you.

I believe in working with A+ performers.  I want everyone to be at the top of their particular game.  The stronger my colleagues, the stronger the business.  Strong teams raise all ships.  The single biggest difference between a B performer and an A performer is that the A is working toward something that forces them to grow.  B’s are usually really good at the job in front of them but not striving for something bigger.

Businesses and groups built around A performers are constantly changing and growing.  They challenge themselves and others and compete by not racing to the bottom.  Businesses built around B’s are really good today but their long term prospects will mainly be about simply doing what they do today a little bit better – aka racing to the bottom.

So where do you want to be in 2 years?  What new experiences do you need to get there?  What kind of people do you need to know to get there?  What new skills do you need to acquire?  Do you have weaknesses that you need to work on to get there?  If you don’t know, stop and think about it.  Take a walk while contemplating it.  Then think about it again tomorrow….and the next day….and the day after that.

How quickly can perspectives actually change?

As you may have noticed I haven’t been very good with getting posts out this year yet.  It’s been weird because it hasn’t been writer’s block that has kept me from it, it’s been in part that my current perspective doesn’t match what I’ve written about for years.  I’ve been focused on things outside of my normal.

Here’s what’s fascinating to me – the more I’ve focused on other things and gotten to understand them deeply, the more those things suddenly fit in with everything else I knew.  It is like taking different pre-req classes in college that have nothing to do with each other and then 3 semesters later the topics magically merge and what you thought was disparate knowledge suddenly lines up perfectly.

It’s not that my perspective on things has actually changed it’s that I’m becoming better at new skills that I once thought were independent.  As I learn to manage I figure out new aspects of UI/UX for software.  As I learn to navigate corporate politics (or as I am more likely to do – understand but avoid corporate politics) I discover new reasoning behind how clients view our services.  As I discover more management types above me I better understand the fragmented nature of some of what we do.

I’m not going to fall back on the cliche that life is a giant puzzle with the pieces waiting to come together.  But I am rediscovering that the way we individually experience the world builds upon past experience and knowledge.  There is no such thing as independent experiences because the past always influences the future.  There is no way of compartmentalizing what’s going on in life.

This is the primary reason why business and personal are the same and why work/life balance is important.  Without one you can’t have the other and the fact that both exist impacts behavior within each.  Perspectives never really change, just the eyes that are experiencing.