Beginner’s Mind

At the recent Great Lakes Software Excellence Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Lisamarie Babik of Menlo Innovations gave an excellent talk entitled “Beginners Mind”. For those not familiar with the expression, the term refers to the open and receptive state of mind that we have when we’re beginners at something. The concept is based on the observation that beginners approach things differently from those who see themselves as experts. Where beginners are receptive to new ideas, try to think of different options for how to proceed and are open to learning, experts tend to skip those important processes and base their actions on a preconceived view of how the world works.

The transition from beginner to expert is a natural part of the learning cycle we go through as we learn new skills, but as Lisamarie pointed out we lose great value when we make that transition. Although becoming an expert at something allows us to do things faster than a beginner, when developing software, rapidity of action can also be a trap that prevents us being more aware of our situation and thinking of alternate ideas.

There is actually a sound psychological basis for the concept of their being a beginner’s mind. Gary Klein (Sources of Power – How people make decisions – MIT Press) has analysed how people with different levels of expertise make decisions. Klein’s work has identified a number of distinct thinking processes that enable decision making.

Klein found that beginners rely most heavily on a form of decision making called “Mental Simulation”. In mental simulation the brain makes observations of our environment, generates ideas for how to respond and envisages (simulates) how a given course of action will turn out. Based on different options the brain can generate and the simulation of their possible outcomes, the brain selects the best option. As our level of expertise increases, Klein found that our decision making naturally switches to a method he calls “Recognition Primed Decision making” (RPD). In RPD decision making we no longer bother with the observation and simulation steps and instead rely on stored patterns of past experiences to enable us to make decisions more quickly.

RPD decision making may be slightly faster than the Mental Simulation technique, but when we slip into RPD mode, we lose the observation and internal consideration processes that are a critical part of making decisions about complex things. The truth is that developing software is a naturally complex activity and given that every project is unique none of us can truly consider ourselves experts. Only by slowing down our decision making just a little and maintaining the open mind needed to enquire and observe our environments are we able to make effective decisions.

Part of the philosophy behind Menlo Innovations is keeping the beginner’s mind alive so that observation, learning and enquiry are a way of working rather than a transient stage. Bravo to Menlo for recognising the power of the beginner’s mind and for finding ways to keep that state of mind alive and well within their organization.