Beginner’s Mind Versus Expert’s Mind

Shunryu Suzuki, in his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, tells us that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. Certainly, this statement is a simple and true perspective. A beginner, not knowing much of anything about the subject at hand and forced to make decisions, may look at many possibilities. An expert, given a certain circumstance, will have thoughts pouring down a funnel of experience and/or education framing his or her thoughts.

Bias toward either an expert or a beginner approach seems to consume an organization far too often. When a beginner’s-mind bias exists, team choices rule. Everyone has a say, expert opinions are greatly discounted because … it seems far more fun to do things differently—even if this leads to sub-optimal choices. And certainly a beginner’s-mind bias can be dangerous, as time to fully explore those sub-optimal choices is not allowed. According to a seasoned platitude, if you really want to bake an apple pie from scratch, the first step is to create the universe. For good or for bad, the business world of today doesn’t have the patience for such an investment of time and resources. Today, even instant gratification takes too long for most people. We are past the days of having research institutes filled with eccentric brainiacs twiddling away time and money until they come up with a world-altering innovation.

Not long ago, Christopher Alexander drew scorn from his architectural peers when advising young architects to wander about the empty lots, close their eyes, and spend some serious time imagining the existence of living spaces around them, then wait for designs for homes and office buildings to bubble up into their consciousness. And while the architectural community did not embrace his organic ideas, the IT community did, but with a twist. Alexander’s thought about pattern languages, which was an integral part of that bubbling-up-of-living-designs process, is approached as a supposed quick and easy reuse of objects and methods in the IT world. The information technology repurposing of Alexander’s pattern language is evinced as a bias for the expert’s pre-created patterns, and novices should just “cut along the lines” to build a solution.

Both a beginner’s and an expert’s perspective have value. The beginner will more often consider options that are known to be flawed, options that an expert will not waste time on. And an expert may be stuck in a rut using the “same old” methods and not even recognize potential opportunities for fresh approaches. Of course, this leads to a dreaded choice, should one waste time reinventing the wheel, or should one fail to innovate? Obviously, in an ideal circumstance the wish is to avoid both situations. The most reasonable tactic for obtaining equilibrium is by employing both experts and novices. Strong teams achieve a favorable balance of traits, whether for building applications or designing databases. Organizations should strive to encourage experts to innovate, and embolden beginners to both respect the experts for their skills while also questioning even basic principles when it seems appropriate.

A balance of this beginner/expert nature is something that needs to be carefully fostered. It could be looked at as an expert-lead tactic while attempting to maintain an open mind to innovation. As implied previously, some innovations require time to incubate. This incubation may be instantiated via prototypes, or proofs-of-concept may need to be nurtured. If done in a measured approach for thoughtfully chosen situations, the gestation of new concepts can be done in a parsimonious fashion. The ability to establish a dynamic organization is greatly enhanced by avoiding favoritism to only a beginner’s mind or an expert’s mind. And Suzuki appreciated balance just as much as a beginner’s mind.