Argument Culture Kills Creativity

I have a saying: “You can’t innovate in a dangerous environment.”  People need to feel secure in themselves and their situation to be creative, share their ideas, and take risks. If the culture where we work is adversarial, where jockeying for position and playing it safe are de rigeur, we can’t afford to make anything but the safest bets.

Kate Heddleston’s excellent article on Arguments Cultures and Unregulated Aggression describes in detail how the combative practice of argument-as-problem-solving-tool manifests in the tech industry.

We in the tech industry like to tell ourselves we’re making decisions based on facts, logic, and superior reasoning. We also like to tell ourselves that the people and ideas that rise to the top are the ones with the most merit.  Both of these conceits are false.  Humans as a species are pretty terrible at making decisions based on facts.  We respond and act more often from out emotions than our intellect.  Just like the most effective method of influencing is appealing to our emotions, decisions are driven from emotion and bias more often than logic.

Argument as a decision-making tool lacks a core component: ethics.  Rhetoric and debate have ethical ground rules in place for ensuring parties are arguing in good faith. To argue with a bad actor — as is most often the case in a technology solution argument — is a waste of time, intended to exhaust an opponent, not to root out any weakness in the ideas being discussed.  There’s now tech companies advocating for “no discussion” problem-solving, because they view discussion of any kind as a waste of time.

The waste isn’t in discussion, it’s in bad faith arguments.  If we approach every instance of idea sharing as a battle, soon no one wants to share anything at all. There’s no room for creativity when there’s always someone fighting for dominance, or to “win” a conflict.  Having a more humane approach to sharing ideas fosters a creative atmosphere where everyone can bring all their ideas to the table without judgement.

Successful design firms like IDEO embrace the creative with space and culture choices that help foster a safe environment for their teams to bring their most imaginative selves to their work. Especially when brainstorming, when you want to expand on ideas, not eliminate them, there’s no room for combative attitudes or bad faith arguments.  When we feel safe and confident, we can be creative and expand our ideas.  Arguments can wait… or maybe never happen at all.

Hate Networking? You’re Not Alone

Professional networking feels wrong — inauthentic and immoral — to many of us. Studies have learned people feel dirty when they engage in professional networking activities, especially if they’re on the low end of a power dynamic.  Folks who are already successful, and have less need of making advantageous connections, don’t seem to mind it so much.  Ironic, no? Those who need to network the most are the ones who feel the worst about the process.

Even as a self-professed extrovert who likes connecting people with others who may have common interests, I don’t love networking as a formalized activity.  I grew up with staunch rules around how much self-promotion was acceptable (the answer as a woman was pretty much ‘none’), and how expressing pride in one’s accomplishments was regarded as not confident, but rude.

This Tall Poppy Syndrome did nothing for my ability to navigate the professional world. As I contended with overcoming my own perfectionism in my work, I also came to understand the unique leverage of networking.  I stopped hating networking when I could approach it as a learning opportunity. I could be openly curious about other people, and share with the folks I met what I can do.  I also no longer needed to be an expert on many different areas, since I could “outsource” information in other people’s heads.  I didn’t need to know everything, if I knew enough people who collectively know everything.

Experts offer a similar tactic to improving how you feel about networking. Focusing less on what you need from the experience and more on what you can bring to your interactions with others helps you feel less gross about the whole encounter.

Networking became a lower-risk way of practicing self-promotion for me, which is still feels awkward, even 20+ years into my professional career.  I was taught my work would speak for itself, and I shouldn’t chase accolades. However, the reality is that only once in my professional career has a manager offered me an opportunity to do something new because he knew my skills well (Thank you, Bart!).  The only person who is going to advance my career is me.

As a result, I continue to practice getting to know people and their abilities so I can tap them on the shoulder for help later, and hopefully repay that when they need my skills. I have met interesting people in professional environments like conferences or training classes, and also in less formal situations like on a plane or while I’m traveling.

Like most activities, it gets easier the more I practice. I don’t know if I’ve made it to that level of success where I no longer feel odd about networking, but I keep moving closer to it each time I can approach the experience as an opportunity rather than an obligation.

Done is Better than Perfect

Hi. I’m Alex, and I’m a Recovering Perfectionist.

I have struggled with the demons of perfectionism as long as I can remember.  Without getting too deep into the gory personal details of my upbringing, suffice to say I was raised to be a Perfectionist.  Not just any Perfectionist, but the Most Perfect Perfectionist.

I learned from an early age that effort was not enough, if it resulted in anything less than excellence.  I was that child who was a superior student, involved in activities, volunteering in the community, working a part-time job while applying to Ivy League colleges.  In some ways, perfectionism helped me achieve, but in many others it crippled me with anxiety and destroyed my self-esteem.

I have spent years working on my own thoughts and behaviors to embrace a gentler way of regarding my self worth and my accomplishments at and outside of work.  I started by setting a mantra for myself:  Done is better than perfect.

Continue reading

Servant Leadership

What is Servant-Leadership?

Richard Greenleaf is credited with the popular definition for servant-leader, when he wrote in 1970:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

The roots of servant-leadership extend back much further.  Confucius said, “A benevolent man helps others to establish what he himself wishes to establish and also helps others achieving what he wishes to achieve. If one is capable of treating others as one would be treated oneself, this is the best way to be benevolent.” Some scholars are applying the words of Confucius about humility to leadership practices.  The humble leader is one who can listen and learn from the people around her, and benefit from their insight.

Why is Servant-Leadership Important?

When we practice servant-leadership, leaders benefit from the insights their teams provide, while the teams are able to trust and collaborate with each other for the best possible outcomes.  Leadership expert Simon Sinek explains in his 2014 TED talk that when leaders make their teams feel secure, those teams can be more productive.  The teammates can trust each other and work together more effectively if they aren’t spending energy on protecting themselves from real or imagined reprisals.  When we feel secure in our place on our teams, we can do our best work together.  As servant-leaders, we can easily set aside our personal concerns for our teammates, because we know they would do the same for us.

How Can We Be Servant-Leaders?

Anyone at any level of the organization can be a servant-leader.  Being in a position of authority isn’t required.  Like any new behavior, it will take practice for us to make servant-leadership a habit.  On a personal level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by helping others with tricky challenges.  We can mentor others through formal or informal mentorship programs.  We can take on a mundane task that needs to be done so someone else can stay focused on their work, whether it’s taking notes in a meeting or cleaning up the spilled coffee in the break room.  On a project level, we can practice our servant-leadership skills by assisting teammates to improve their craft. We can promote their great ideas to the rest of the team (and give them credit).  We can remind each other of the client needs that drive our work.  On an organizational level, consulting companies can be the servant-leader for their clients. We can listen to the client’s needs in the sales pursuit process.  We can structure projects to grow their capabilities and mature their systems.  We can build solutions to move them forward to reach their business goals.

Being more like a man at work doesn’t work for women

Many books, think pieces and hot takes have been produced to tell women what they’re doing wrong when it comes to getting ahead in their careers, especially those of us in STEM careers. More often than not, the advice given (often by men) is to act more like men. Women in corporate (US) America understand this to be hollow guidance. The path to navigate the minefield of working while a woman means nodding and smiling while being given worthless advice, and learning the hard way what works.

The best study I’ve seen on this comes from, called The Myth of the Ideal Worker, published in 2011.

The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?, tackles persistent myths about the gender gap. Career advancement strategies used by women and men were compared to determine if using the same strategies ultimately leads to the same career outcomes. Findings revealed that:

  • Men benefited more from adopting proactive strategies.
  • When women did all the things they have been told will help them get ahead—using the same tactics as men—they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.

The summary download available at the Catalyst site explains four types of approaches workers use in advancing their careers. They measured women and men’s advancement within the same approach, and across all approaches.  The results?

  • Doing “All the Right Things” Helped Men—But Not Women—Advance Further and Faster
  • Additionally, Men Advanced Further Than Women Across All Other Strategy Profiles
  • Men’s Compensation Also Grew Faster Than Women’s, Regardless of Strategies Used

This also reminds me of other studies that show the men are hired and promoted for their potential, while women advance on their track record. Men also tend to overestimate their own capabilities, and believe they should be paid more for those imagined abilities than they are, while women are more likely to only pursue opportunities where they are fully (or over-)qualified.

If we look to the source of these tendencies, it points to how girls and boys are socialized. Girls are socialized to strive for perfection, while boys are encouraged to take risks and be unafraid of failure.  This plays out in schooling environments, where girls are less likely to answer questions in class unless they’re 100% sure they’re correct, and boys will just shout down interrupt with wrong answers or their own opinions. This behavior persists through to the college level.

This is teaching girls and women that we’re not likely to be heard, we’ll be judged harshly for any misstep or risk that doesn’t yield perfectly positive results, and that mediocre men will likely be advanced over hardworking women. Women tend to have a pessimistic outlook on their advancement and compensation, according to one study, but I personally think this is women accurately assessing their chances in the workplace.  Women’s lowered expectations means we have higher job satisfaction because we dare not dream of better outcomes, given the realities we face.

So what can we do to change these outcomes, since continuing to try the same tactics and hope for better results is insanity?

  • Teach girls bravery, not perfection
  • Making our achievements known, and seeking feedback and credit
  • Proactively networking with influential people
  • Pursuing high-profile projects where our achievements can shine

If you have other ideas for effective alternate strategies women in STEM jobs can use to improve their career advancement goals, please share!

Stories > Questions in Interviews

I’m regularly asked to conduct candidate interviews for fellow Business Analysts. I wanted to talk about my interview style, key questions I ask, and which questions I never ask.

My Style

My interview style is strongly informed by my training as an Anthropologist. I approach job interviews (whether I’m a candidate or interviewer) like ethnographic field work: I’m here to share stories and elicit stories from my interview partner as a means of getting to know them as a person and a professional.

People like talking about themselves, and the best way to do this is to give them a story prompt. I also share something about myself with each prompt, so they can learn about me, and we can swiftly establish some trust and rapport by being a bit vulnerable with each other. Bringing this human-centered approach has yielded excellent interview experiences for me, on both sides of the conversation.

Questions I Ask

Most of us who have become Business Analysts have a story of how we got here. Unless you’re fresh out of a business programme at a college where they have coursework related to Business Analysis (which is quite rare), then you’ve likely taken a winding road to get to where you are as a BA. It’s not uncommon to hear folks say they “fell into” the career.

So my opening question is more of a story. I explain to my interviewer or candidate I like to trade stories versus slogging through a list of canned questions, or making it feel like a firing squad where questions are peppered across the table, while looking for ways to catch each other out.

I start with my story of studying Anthropology in college, hitting the job market during the .com boom of the 90s, where I did helpdesk tech support for Netscape on Windows95 (to date myself!). I later became a network engineer for a telecom company, working on prototype data transmission technologies. Our provisioning software in the engineering team was so atrocious, I was spending more time explaining how the software should work to our IT developers than provisioning circuits. I was tapped for a big agile dev project in 2000 to become a Business Analyst representing the engineering team. We were given 6 months and 1 million dollars to deliver a custom workflow system, and we did it! I’ve been a professional BA ever since. Then I ask what their BA path story looks like, and they get to tell me the highlights of their experience.

By starting with a personal story, then being curious about the other person’s experience in an open-ended way, I get so much more detail from my interview partner than if I’d asked them specific questions about specific situations.

I continue my interviews with this pattern:

  • Raise a topic or situation
  • Share a relevant personal story
  • Ask about the other person’s related experiences

Topics I often ask candidates about are:

  • A moment, insight or accomplishment they are proud of
  • A hard lesson learned
  • A difficult person they dealt with
  • A great collaboration

I am looking more for a personality than a skillset in many of these story prompts, since I can teach techniques and skills, but I can’t teach personality traits like curiosity, a desire to learn about people and situations, fulfillment in problem-solving, and comfort with ambiguous circumstances.

The one delicate part of an interview using this style is time management. Most interviews are an hour long at best, so having good facilitation skills to guide conversation gently in an interview is invaluable. The trick I use is to key off a point my interview partner made, and ask a follow up question that segues into the topic I’d like to cover. This takes a bit of good improv skills to “Yes, and…” into the next topic without the other person feeling hushed or herded.

My ringer question at the end of every interview is this:

What question did you expect me to ask that I didn’t ask?

I ask this question for a few reasons. First, I want to make sure my interview partner has a chance to cover something they wanted to touch on, but didn’t get a chance. Next, I want them to get a completely unexpected question to see how they react when having to think on their feet. Finally, I want to learn more about their expectations of how they thought the interview would go.

This one question gets excellent results.  I’ve even had men at my organization steal this question and try to suggest it back to me as if it were their own idea. /eyeroll

Questions I Don’t Ask

I have some questions on my most-hated question list. I don’t like asking them, and I don’t like being asked them:

  1. Why do you want to leave your current position? – This is an awful question. There’s no easy way to answer this without making yourself or your employer look bad. You end up with useless canned responses like “I’m seeking new challenges and opportunities” which doesn’t give you insight into someone’s personality. Also: It’s none of my business why someone’s looking. Their reasons are their own, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that I need to test someone’s loyalty in the interview process.
  2. What’s your biggest weakness? – This is another ‘test’ question that seeks to push someone back on their heels and share something negative about themselves without the other person sharing their own negative traits. It’s a power play that’s detrimental and unnecessary when getting to know someone. I don’t ask people to be vulnerable to me without modeling that behavior first. This question also yields canned responses like “I take on too much work sometimes.”
  3. Where do you see yourself in five years? – Every time I’ve heard this question in an interview, it was another loyalty test. Asking me to predict the future is a bit ridiculous. Chances are, as a GenX worker, I won’t be in any job for five years at a go, after all. If this question were put to me, and it were being asked in earnest, it would be framed differently. The question would be asking what my career aspirations were, or asking what the company could do to help me fulfill my goals.

If you’ve got interview questions you love or hate, please share! I’d be interested in hearing them.

The Importance of Sharing

Once upon a time in IT, which wasn’t all that long ago, possessing deep knowledge on a topic meant we could be considered experts. Our knowledge was a source of pride and job security; we were always in demand for our rarefied expertise. We’ve since learned the demand for our expertise swiftly outstrips the capacity of a handful of gurus, and we have to share information and collaborate as teams to scale to the increasing needs of our clients.

We can all relate to needing necessary information, and not knowing exactly where to find it or who to ask. While we’re hunting answers to our questions, we’re losing productive time and focus, which only frustrates us further. If the answer only resides in the head of a colleague, but you don’t know to ask that person, you can’t benefit from their expertise.

Furthermore, the next person with that same question can’t benefit from your quest for knowledge without embarking on their own scavenger hunt.

A study by McKinsey Group Institute discovered interaction workers – high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals (like us) – were spending 28% of their average workweek on emails, and another 19% searching for and gathering information. MGI further determined the productivity of workers could be improved 20-25% by improving collaboration and communication within and across enterprises.

What would that mean to our day-to-day life and work? Having fast, scalable means of communication and a searchable record of our collective knowledge as a company could mean:

  • Faster, more streamlined communication with each other
  • Smoother paths to collaboration
  • Lowering barriers between roles, titles and capabilities within the company and with our customers

Technology alone can’t solve every problem, as we know from our client projects. It’s the same with sharing our knowledge with each other: combining technology with behavioral and cultural shifts will bring more benefits than using technology alone. If we can create a Sharing Culture, we’ll have the collective genius of all of us across the company to help each other on our projects.

Here’s some ideas on how to foster a Sharing Culture:

  • On a personal level, we can overcome the notion that keeping information close to the vest is what gives your experience value, and consider instead sharing what you know with your colleagues to increase the impact of your expertise.
  • On a team level, we can trust each other enough to raise our hands when we need help, and ask for what we need. In response, we can share our knowledge with those seeking help. Recording our knowledge in shared documentation or recorded demos can help increase the reach of our collective knowledge.
  • On a company-wide level, we can participate in mentorship activities (formal or informal), or keep an eye on internal message boards or chat channels to find questions for which you may have an answer, no matter what role you play or title you hold in the organization.