As we get older, most of us realize jumping through hoops of fire at the
circus we call work isn’t worth the milk bone any more. So, is it true?
Can old dogs really not learn new tricks? I think it depends on what
kind of old dog you need to send to puppy school. Here are a few musings
on the topic, complete with case studies from my personal past, and a
few simple opinions to chew on.
What is an old dog?
Age, even for old dogs, is relative. Take me for example. With a decade of
experience, I am a veteran of the commercial Internet world, but big dogs
look on me as a pup in the world of business. Heck, in dog years I’m 196!
That’s no spring chic…er um…spring puppy, but I am no Dali Lhasa Apso of
ancient wisdom (or old habits that won’t roll over and play dead) either.
Your old dog then, might be someone who has walked around the block a few
thousand times, but maybe in a different industry. Or, your old dog might
be too old to walk the block, but more than ready to show you a trick or
two. Teaching new tricks to old dogs means figuring out which breed of old
dog you are dealing with. Lets take a closer look.
The One Trick Wonder
Think about the dog that knows that one amazing trick that pleases
everyone, but he just can’t seem to master anything else. You know the
dog. The one who offers his paw to shake with anyone, but no matter how
many treats are used, sit, stay, and fetch on command, nothing else is
One of my clients, the leader of a painfully slow-to-mature startup, could
be classified as an old dog with only one trick. Nice guy¾and that was his
trick. He was so nice and full of entertaining antidotes; he could break
down the fiercest resistance of any prospective client in a sales call
situation. Unfortunately, once the prospective client was open to hearing
a proposal, he often wasn’t sure what to do and would pitch a proposal
that didn’t meet the clients needs, his company’s business model, or both.
In the office, it was no different. His joyful, entertaining demeanor kept
everyone feeling happy and united in a cause. As you dug under the
surface, though, no one was really sure of the company’s purpose.
Attempts were made to teach the old dog new management and sales
techniques. New processes and procedures giving more structure for
learning new tricks were introduced. Nonetheless, the old dog stuck to his
one trick. He continued to be nice while many people attempted to teach
him new and innovative tricks.
Eventually I realized: our one trick wonder was very comfortable with his
trick. He had spent decades perfecting it. His trick had become so robust;
he did not have the room to learn new tricks. He had reached his capacity.
Some one trick wonders may stop learning new tricks because they fear
change. If the fear of change inhibits learning, look for ways to create a
comfortable learning environment.
Other one trick wonders may see no reason to move out of their comfort
zones which might indicate you need to provide a challenging environment
to simulate and encourage learning.
If your old dog is like my personal case study, you may decide they are
not capable of new tricks, but you can find a role where their old trick
can bring new rewards to your organization.
Imagine the bulldog with selective hearing, who does what you ask only
when it suits him. Otherwise, at the sound of your voice he only half
opens his eyes and doesn't bother to lift his head. When you have an old
dog that refuses to learn new tricks, you may have a Fido in your
In the commercial Internet industry, Fido’s are all too common. I see many
brick and mortar companies who consistently run after potential Internet
customers only to choke themselves on their own chain. They refuse to
acknowledge that working on the Internet requires new tricks.
Figuring out how to train a Fido can be a new trick in itself. Some clues
to look for if you need to get your Fido to heel before he rips your arm
1. Does Fido understand why he needs to know what he doesn’t know? Maybe
it’s an issue of straightforward education as to why the new trick is
important. Show the reward.
2. Does Fido bite when your try to teach him new tricks? Maybe you have a
heavy hand that comes across as threatening and you just need to change
your approach. Put away the rolled newspaper.
3. Is Fido overwhelmed and tired from the stress of it all? Fido may just
need a vacation or a more comfortable atmosphere where progress is
rewarded. Hide the Frisbee.
Rin Tin Tin
Don’t despair, you may have a company’s best friend.
Do you have a Rin Tin Tin? You know, the dog who sizes up the situation
and saves the day. He sees the woman in distress in the burning building,
the bad guy getting away, and still manages to execute a plan that saves
the woman and nabs the bad guy at the same time! In my experience there
are plenty of old dogs who learn new tricks.
Even old dogs will jump through the hoop of fire at the circus we call
work—that is if they are happy, healthy and agree the milk bone at the end
is relative to the heat of the flames around the hoop!