The Power of Experience

I have been rereading Gary Klein’s landmark book on decision-making, Sources of Power.  Klein’s genius was something other sciences take for granted: field work.  Klein and his team spent years studying how experts make high-stakes decisions in real life.  This is truly “what they don’t teach you in business school.”

The short version is that formal methods for decision making are rarely used in real-life conditions.  Indeed, the people studied by Klein were not even conscious of making decisions.  They just knew what to do.  When a surgeon must make a snap decision, with someone’s life on the line, there’s no time for a weighted-factor analysis.

Most research on decision-making bleaches out the importance of prior experience

Klein points out that most psychology research, in an effort to produce controlled conditions, bleaches out the importance of prior experience.  If you do all your research in a laboratory, then you will only learn how people make decisions in a laboratory – not in combat, say, or a forest fire.

Like his better-known colleagues Kahneman and Tversky, much of Klein’s research was funded by military organizations.  They would like their gunners and squadron leaders not to make fatal blunders under fire.  Also included are doctors, firefighters, and nuclear power plant operators.

The power of experience seems obvious enough, but Klein figured out exactly how it works, in a framework called the Recognition-Primed Decision Model.  This consists of using imagination plus experience to generate possible courses of action, and then conducting mental simulations to predict the likely results.

Various “sources of power” follow from the model:

  • Intuition/Experience
  • Mental Simulation
  • Seeing Leverage Points
  • Seeing Patterns and Anomalies
  • Reasoning by Analogy
  • Anticipating Intentions

What we think of as intuition is really expert recognition.  One firefighter recounted a narrow escape because he’d had a “premonition” the building he was working in was about to collapse.  This might have been a warning from God – or it might have been the million subtle cues he was unconsciously observing.

This may seem like a different realm from business, where we have ample time to make decision trees, compute expected values, perform cost-benefit analyses, and – there’s always time for one more Big Four consulting study.  This is an illusion, however.  Whether they know it or not, managers are under constant pressure to make decisions and take action faster than their competitors.

My mentor at AutoNation, Kevin Westfall, had a plaque in his office with this quote from General George S. Patton, “a good plan, executed right now, is far better than a perfect plan executed next week.”  Kevin and I had both arrived from our previous employer with some impatience over their decision protocols.

In an area that could easily devolve into pop psychology, I was impressed by Klein’s scientific rigor.  Every study is cross-checked, blind, double-blind, sanitized, etc.  Every result is turned into a training program, and then the trainees are tested.  In one project, his team redesigned the user interface for a computerized weapons system, making its operators 20% more effective.

Since experience is so powerful, Klein takes up the question of how best to gain it.  That is, what are the key lessons from the old-timers in various domains?  In the infantry, this might mean knowing how fast your squad can move over terrain, what their best range is for engagement, and being able to gauge those distances by eye.

The cornerstone of the book is the RPD framework, and then Klein spends a chapter on each “source of power,” plus his research methods and training programs.  If that sounds like too much psychology for you, skip the text and just read the case studies.  They’re amazing.