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.

Krthe Woman: Why Latina Women Aren’t In Technology

When you think about jobs you think about opportunities and equal chance no matter what race or gender that you are. You have an identity disregard circumstance. If you are a Latina or a white woman you should be granted the same opportunities that the other has, because you are both human. If you are […]

via Why Latina Women Aren’t In Technology: Because They’re Latina — Krthe Woman

The author makes an important observation:

Across the board we all talked about the lack of diversity and representation in tech companies and what we should do to solve this problem. I then realized the answer, the majority of the fifteen girls out of twenty that participated in girls who code – who had the privilege in doing this program which opens their eyes to a whole new world- were the daughters of engineers or people who worked in technology. And you ask yourself how could one aspire to be a computer programmer if you don’t see anybody who looks like you working in this career.

Representation matters, but so does access to the prestige networks where they can learn skills to pursue opportunities they didn’t initially think possible.

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.