The Experience Trap

Although experience is often an asset, when it comes to creating new products, it can be a trap.

I was meeting with some members of the innovation team at a large insurance company as we were working on how they could identify and create a product for a customer segment they were not yet serving. The time was mostly productive, and we were making some good progress. As the discussions and work continued, more people from the business that would be responsible for the new product started to participate. It made sense. If they were going to fund, execute, and support it then they should have some visibility into what we were doing to identify some potential options to pursue. But this is also when things began to go off the rails, which is not uncommon when the line of business, as it is often referred to, gets involved.

I arrived at the company for what I expected to be a meeting of about a half-dozen people and there ended up being over 20. This was my first sign that things were headed in a bad direction. There is a direct correlation between the number of people involved in the work around a potential new product and the productivity and success of the work. I was already in the room so there wasn’t much to be done about the additional people now being part of the conversation.

Our team and the company’s innovation team began to review some of the customer research and associated findings that had been performed to better understand the problem and opportunity from the customer’s perspective. Our team had briefed me already and there was some juicy stuff. As the findings were being reviewed, a voice from the back of the room says, “I know what to do.” I turned to the person and asked them to repeat what they said because I wasn’t sure I had heard everything. I had. He repeated, “I know what to do.” I asked him to elaborate. He said he had seen these kinds of problems at the company before and the solution had always been a dashboard. He said he had been at the company for 27 years and he knew the new product should be a dashboard because it had worked in the past. I asked him how much of the problem and hypothesis for the new product he was aware of and he said just what had been reviewed so far in the meeting. I would like to say I was surprised but I wasn’t. I’ve been down this road before with people who have been at a company or industry for a long time.

This gentleman was falling into the experience trap. He was leveraging his 27 years of experience at the company and dealing with similar issues. That’s what he gets paid to do. I asked some of the innovation team members more about him and they said that he is well respected and is so because he has worked in many areas of the company over time and in some cases has more domain knowledge than people currently working in some areas. They said, “When he speaks people listen.”

Experience can be a wonderful thing. Each of us is made up of our personal and professional experiences. Often our experiences help us to make wiser and better-informed decisions. Our experience also causes us to have biases and to be pre-disposed to conclusions. Too often experience equates to being close-minded. The gentleman from the insurance company, as well as many others, get to the point of their experience taking away their ability to be open-minded. This is part of the reason that large companies have a difficult time being innovative. They have a company full of highly-experienced and well-paid team members who get paid to be domain experts and not to be open-minded.

Solving problems and creating new products and services requires a combination of domain expertise and open-mindedness, so experience isn’t all bad. But, as with our friend from the insurance company, experience can be a hindrance then an asset. During the meeting I asked him how many customers he had spoken to about the problem and their view of it. He said “None.” He said that didn’t matter because whenever a similar problem had been identified in the past, the solution always turned out to be a dashboard. I asked him how many of the products, and in this case all of which had been historically dashboards, solved the problem and were considered successes. He looked around the room at some of his colleagues and then sheepishly said, “Well, none probably.” I responded, “With all due respect, that’s why we are here and why we’re doing the work we are. If you have a shot at solving this problem successfully and having this product become a success, we can’t do what you’ve always done and we can’t rely on the experience that facilitated what has happened previously.”

To my surprise, he agreed. I was surprised because one of the traps of experience is that it can cause us to be abstinent in the face evidence to the contrary. Experience can cause us to dig in and to defend what we know or at least what we believe we know. He was at least open to considering a different perspective when presented with the evidence that the prior way of thinking and acting had not gotten them the new products and outcomes they had desired.

Product teams have to seek out domain experience if they don’t have it, but they also have to protect against the experience affecting their approach to the problem and product. It is often helpful for a company to engage with a firm like ours at AWH because we can be more independent of the company’s politics and people’s desire to be right versus what is in the best interest of the product and customers. Product teams have to be able to operate outside the bounds of legacy thinking and actions so they can leverage experience without being encumbered by it.

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This mutli-part sponsored series is presented with paid support by AWH.

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