This Guest paper series was originally published by the Cutter Consortium Agile Product & Project Management Advisory Service in 2009. It is reproduced here, September 2014, with permission from the publishers (

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Part 3 published here November 2014.

PART 2 | Introduction | Tackling the Problems
Beginner's Mindset | More on Klein's Work | PART 4

More on Klein's Work

Klein's work has actually identified a set of cognitive processes that may, in part, lie behind this phenomenon. Klein found that the mechanism used by beginners to make decisions differs from that used by those who have more experience. The predominant decision-making mode used by beginners is a type called "mental simulation." In mental simulation, the brain makes careful observations of the environment, thinks of ideas for how to respond, and envisages (simulates) how a given course of action will turn out.

Based on the different options and the internal simulation of their possible out-comes, the brain selects what it determines to be the best option. Mental simulation involves both conscious and semiconscious thought. Certainly when beginning to learn a new skill, the mental simulation mode makes us more open to suggestions and guidance from external parties, who can help us identify options and evaluate how a given course of action might turn out.

As our level of experience increases, Klein found that mental simulation decision-making gets relegated to situations that the brain deems atypical. For more familiar situations, the brain naturally switches to a faster method of decision-making called "recognition-primed decision making" (RPD). RPD is the subconscious process behind the intuitive thinking we use for the vast majority of our day-to-day decisions.

Using RPD, the brain bypasses the relatively time-consuming observations and the steps used in mental simulation. Instead, it relies on rapid recognition and the brain's stored patterns of past experiences to decide how to respond.

Learning to drive is a good illustration of the two processes at work. As a first-time driver, we have to concentrate on every individual decision it takes to operate the vehicle, but as we become more accomplished we no longer need to concentrate as hard. In fact, once you're an experienced driver it's not uncommon to arrive somewhere without being explicitly conscious of the details of how you got there. For example, what traffic lights did you have to stop at, or what was every other vehicle around you doing? Ask a person who has just completed their first driving lesson and you'll find that they are much more aware of those types of detail.

The problem for organizations is that in situations where a person has received insufficient guidance through the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, the transition to RPD-style decision-making can occur too early. RPD decision making is most effective when it is backed up by a sufficiently rich set of internalized mental patterns and a sufficiently rich mental model that links the patterns together. Although a person can use RPD without having attained the advanced insights of a true expert, the lack of an underlying understanding increases the chances of suboptimal decisions being made. Thus higher errors rates are the result, together with all the associated problems that come with those mistakes.

Once the transition from the beginner state to the experienced state has been made, many people find it difficult to reopen the door to learning. My wife is painfully aware of this. Although she makes lots of suggestions for how I could improve my driving, I tend not to listen. The old curmudgeon with the "my way or the highway" type attitude represents the height of that problem.

Clearly, one of the big challenges for organizations is keeping the door open to learning. Only by doing so are organizations able to work toward a team in whom expertise is epitomized by Klein-type experts. In other words, teams that are able to generate lots of options for how to respond to a situation. That is, instead of the less-informed type noted by Suzuki, where there is only one way to do things and it's my way or the highway).

Returning to our example of the training program that sought to develop the skills of the development team, within a year of program completion everyone involved (including the curmudgeon who refused to participate) had measurably improved their abilities. Given that some people weren't interested and one person didn't even participate, that's a surprising result. As well as demonstrating that it is indeed possible to reopen the door to learning, it's an observation that also hints at some of the indirect learning mechanisms that occur within an organization.

Next month, in Part 4, I shall review the findings from this case study.

Beginner's Mindset  Beginner's Mindset

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