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

Beginner's Mindset

Although it is tempting to attach all of the credit for the improvements to the training program itself, there is a more complex story behind the story. Understanding the deeper story casts more light on other processes that came into play.

In general, as you might expect, people who have been doing a job for 15 years are less open to learning new ways of doing things than those who have only three months of prior experience. Certainly, the organization found that some people were more open to the training than others. On one side were those with the least experience and those who had a natural openness to new ideas.

At the opposite end of the scale were a few of the more experienced staff who had the attitude that there really was nothing more for them to learn and so why participate. Although most still attended the workshops, one person flatly rejected the training and declared vociferously, "It's my way or the highway." In other words, there is nothing more I can learn so leave me alone.

Although the "my way or the highway" attitude is fortunately in the minority, it represents the apex of a larger problem organizations have in developing higher-order thinking skills. The underlying problem is one of structuring the organization and its training methods so that learning is an ongoing activity rather than something that only happens in the period immediately after a person moves into a new role.

This problem was summarized succinctly by the Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki who said: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few."[11] Although Suzuki used the word "expert" in a different way from Klein (in Klein's definition "real experts" are able to generate lots of options to solve a problem), the point Suzuki makes underscores one of the great challenges organizations have in developing higher-order thinking skills.

Suzuki's insight was based on the observation that when we begin learning something we approach it very differently than we do once we feel we have reached proficiency. In Zen thinking, the "beginner's mind" represents the state of being open to learning that occurs when we first start learning something new. Because we're not weighed down by prior experiences or preconceived notions, we're open to new ideas and looking at things from different angles.

In this initial stage, we are open to the guidance of others and the possibility that there is more than one way to approach something. As we become proficient at the given task or skill (or more to the point, as we judge ourselves to have become proficient), the beginner's mind closes and we transition to a more closed mode of thinking. In this mode we are less observant, less receptive to new ideas, and more convinced by our own capabilities.

Tackling the Problems  Tackling the Problems

11. Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Weatherhill, 1970.
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