My Greatest Weakness

One of the stock interview questions trotted out on many occasions is “what is your greatest weakness?” If you’re lucky, the interviewer might take the time to rephrase it as some variation on the theme – “What am I going to wish I’d known about you in six months time?”; “What area do you most need to develop?”; “What part of the job do you find hardest?”.

These can be genuine variations – and may elicit slightly different responses from me depending on what crosses my mind at the time. The stock, safe answer is to provide a weakness and to explain how you’ve offset it, worked despite it, or to otherwise cheat the question.

I’ve been thinking recently about my weaknesses, and I’ve identified something key – something which explains a lot about me. I know how it works, I know what its implications are, and I know how to overcome it – I can even demonstrate how it’s a plus in the right circumstances, but the rest of the time it really is a pain in the neck.

I don’t establish routines. Lots of normal, and not so normal, people find that when they do something often enough it becomes a routine. Every Wednesday morning there’s a team meeting at 10am. You always wash your left hand first. Your status report is due with the board every first Thursday of the month at 0900, and you never miss it. Your train leaves at 1809, so you know you need to get out of the office by 1748 at the latest to make it. Risks are always recorded in a particular way, and issues are always separate.

My mind doesn’t work that way. It’s caused me a great deal of pain over the years. I have to consciously decide to do things which other people seem to find automatic. I’ve missed a whole load of deadlines for submitting expenses. I’ve used documents based on the instructions in the document (or forms based on the instructions on the screen) instead of remembering “the way we always do it”, and discovered I’m the only one reading those instructions. I’ve failed to buy my wife flowers for our anniversary because I was thinking about a gift, and just didn’t think of the flowers. That last one is probably the most painful.

It took me years – decades – to realise this was something about me which was different, and that this was hurting me. I have a variety of coping mechanisms (but if you’re not like me you’d be surprised how many coping mechanisms really need you to establish a routine of using them…). It was the realisation that my mind worked this way, and that it wasn’t how other people worked, which made me realise that it was my greatest weakness. Any number of ordinary administration tasks require far more consideration – more focus – than they ought to as a result.

The impetus to think about this weakness – or difference – differently, which led to the insight and understanding I finally reached, was a set of conversations with a great friend of mine about autism, and the things that need to be done in the workplace to enable people on the autistic spectrum to contribute alongside their neuronormative colleagues. It was a discussion which included points about making best use of people’s differences to provide better value to the business, and the agreement that businesses which can’t recognise and capitalise on differences will be outperformed, inevitably, by those which can.

It isn’t the fastest, or strongest, or most resilient organism which survives in an evolutionary context: it’s the most adaptive to change. For the effective constitution of a large organisation, that means celebrating, embracing, and capitalising on difference, because difference is a great source of adaptability – even when the individual components – the people – are not themselves particularly adept at change (as is often the case for autistic people). They may be just what you need in a changing world because they may already be just right for the new situation.

My own weakness offers me one benefit in my work: I don’t assume “the way it is” is the “the way it ought to be” or “the way it has to be.” I don’t have to train myself to constantly question processes, practices, or approaches, because that’s the way my mind works every day, all the time, in work and out. If that sounds exhausting, I can imagine that it is, if you’re not used to it. For me, it’s just … routine.

How diversity is its own reward

Let me start with this: Diversity is the morally right thing to do. Nothing I say in this article should be interpreted as suggesting anything else, overtly, subtly, by inference, or in code.

Moral imperatives and regulatory compliance aside, I have seen in the past that the strongest motivation to engage with diversity issues was the avoidance of the PR disaster which the converse would generate. This attitude misses so many of the benefits of having a diverse workforce; happily in recent years the recognition has grown that diversity has inherent value. An organisation acting entirely in its own self-interest has a reason to value diversity.

Instant and ongoing benefits

Here are some of the simple, inherent benefits to team and organisation diversity. My focus is on Change Leadership, so I’ve made some specific references to that as well.

Recruiting with prejudice restricts your pool of possible hires to a limited subset of those available. This runs a strong risk that you will remove from your possible outcomes hiring a very effective member of the team, gifting that competitive advantage to another organisation. For pushing a change into an organisation you need to be able to draw on all the talents you can muster. Having a blinkered set of views about what the people with those talents will look like (talk like, who they are intimately engaged with, what they believe in, or any other thing that is nothing to do with their job) can jeopardise your ability to deliver the Change you are tasked with bringing about.

A striation of different levels of experience and maturity can make the most of available experience without the cost and difficulty of obtaining only already-experienced people. Giving people opportunities for knowledge transfer can help to crystalise knowledge and change the way the more experienced staff think about what they do; offer a chance to render explicit knowledge which is otherwise tacit; and transform a lower-cost individual to be more effective than their cost would indicate, without having to go through the expensive and time consuming process of making the mistakes themselves. In addition, in a change environment, it can be especially useful to have access to both people who have learned, and who have taught, particular aspects of the work undergoing change; this improves stakeholder communication, knowledge transfer planning, and clarity around what processes or activities need to be changed.

Having a varied range of people available for any given task makes it more likely that there is someone with both skill and inclination for a given task; working in the Change Leadership space means that while many things are predictable, repeated tasks (even if in a variegated context), there will always be new things cropping up which need to be handled, and having a range of people to call on to handle any given problem grants the best chance of finding someone whose natural inclination (and therefore motivation) match a particular task well.

Understanding the perspective of the customer is a critical business insight – needed whether your customers are external, internal, or any other variation – and unless you can restrict your customer pool, the best chance of having that insight is to reflect the diversity of your customer base – not to mirror it completely necessarily; that’s both impossible in terms of size/scale for most organisations, and needlessly slavish – but from a risk management perspective, reducing the probability of the risk that you fail to address an important customer is an effective mitigation. Certainly you miss key insights into what is required if you have no relevant experience on which to draw. This doesn’t mean you can’t have insight into someone who is different from you, but it’s a whole lot easier when similar. A substantial part of making a success of many changes is to foster adoption. There are different ways of communicating with different target audiences, and one of the ways that can be made more effective is in the selection of the right person to carry the message. More diversity in your team gives you more options about the messenger, more insights to draw on for crafting the message, and importantly: more credibility.

Diversity in the workforce also encourages people to try doing things a different way – a natural consequence of all the different attitudes. This can result in discoveries of a radical improvement, but more often just incremental improvements. A little incremental improvement goes a long way, if repeated often enough. The richest ground for sowing any kind of process improvement project is a workforce which has practice in doing these kinds of things on a small scale, benefitting organised changes by making it easier to land the changes.

The risk of monoculture

In my view, the greatest benefit of diversity in the workforce is the same as diversity in any system (organisation, ecosystem or organism). A diverse workforce has a strength inherent in its diversity just as a diverse investment portfolio does, a diverse breeding population within a species on the edge of extinction does, rotation of plants in a field does, or even something as simple a break from a long concentration task to think about something different. This strength is above, beyond, and different from the specific and predictable results referred to above.

“… diversity will always be more resilient than monoculture …” – Jonathan Watts, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China

Without diversity we have monoculture. Monocultures are brittle. Even if each individual is very resilient to some of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, if all individuals are the same (or very similar), they all have the same vulnerabilities. This applies to thought processes, organisations, decision making bodies (commercial or political), populations, the cells in our body, and more. If all individuals are very resilient, but in the same way, a single unexpected threat may arrive which will in one fell swoop incapacitate all of them. This applies equally to commercial organisations as it does to biological ones.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, Feb 2002 US Department of Defense briefing.

Our Daily Bread

Every organisation faces the daily tasks which it needs to complete to keep running. The Bread-and-butter – the known knowns. We provision our technology resources to keep up with what we expect to do on a daily basis. We have enough people to do the daily jobs in the roles that do the daily jobs (or we try to). We have an office more-or-less big enough, if that’s the kind of work we do. Preparing for these is operational management in its most ordinary, basic form. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, only that it is a relatively ubiquitous activity. Even in Change, we have these routine tasks – status reporting being the most ubiquitous example.

What lurks in the shadows

Every organisation also faces risks which, while uncertain, are at least identified. In technology, we build physical servers for resilience (dual power supplies, dual network cards); we float software servers across multiple physical servers within a single data centre; we have geographic resilience with a variety of distributed computing options and non-geographical master data. In team resources, for key functions, we engineer out single points of failure by having an excess of capacity or multiskilled people who can drop lower-priority tasks to pick up higher-priority tasks. We also avoid the risk of waste by predicting that only 80% of the team will be in the office on a given day, and use flexible desk strategies to avoid having too many empty (wasted) desks. Business Continuity planning finds ways to deal with rarer but significant risks to our ability to do business, sometimes with useful spinoffs – the extensive capability in some organisations to work remotely, often directly linked to resilience actions in organisational risk management, also allows greater choice in where to be when working, and often therefore also when to work. In these ways we plan for the known unknowns – we don’t know when there will be a challenge to face, but we know what the challenge looks like. This is routine organisational risk management, and the stimulus for a very large proportion of Changes in a technology provision within a commercial organisation.

Hidden gems of knowledge

There’s a whole discipline, still seemingly in its early days, which addresses the “unknown knowns”, which Mr Rumsfeld did not mention. Time permitting, I’ll write another article about this as it’s a fascinating area of research and a useful risk mitigation approach. As a teaser, I’ll mention a potentially familiar concept from a different domain: passive vocabulary.

The Great Unknown

The final category is “unknown unknowns”. Sometimes referred to as “black swan” events, these are the things which happen which “no one could have predicted”. How can we prepare for them? Logically, if we don’t know what may come, it is impossible to prepare a targeted response. This sometimes translates into a belief that it is impossible to prepare any response – but this is not the case. This is where inherent diversity in the work place has unexpected benefits.

The question is sometimes asked “what is the value of pure research?” Things which are researched but which have no current obvious value or use are dismissed by some in business as a waste of time, effort, resources, and money. While we cannot always define what the use of pure research will be, the only way we can act against a future problem we cannot even describe is by exploring things for which we cannot currently see a use. That costs resources and time, and is a dilution of focus, so it’s unpopular, and often disregarded.

Within an organisation, a diversity of mental makeup (attitude, skill, experience, outlook, education, intelligence, imagination, flexibility, detail-level, and more) is an investment in resilience against the black swan events. Flexibility isn’t just enshrined in the ability of some individuals to adapt and learn, but in an organisation’s ability to do the same – and a part of that is made easier if there are some people within the organisation who already think in the new way.

A parting thought

Diversity in your organisation is a great investment. It’s an investment in the now, but it’s also a very sensible safeguard against an uncertain future. It’s a virtuous combination: the morally right thing to do is also a rewarding thing to do.

I’m a Fool

I’m a Fool

“your all-licensed fool” – Shakespeare, King Lear

There’s a commonly held belief – which I confidently shared until I went to research it in more detail for this article – that medieval fools held a political position of impugnity. “Fool’s Licence” is the term I remember for this protection. The historical accuracy of the tradition is disputed – but the value of the concept of Fool’s Licence is enormous.

Much like the monarchs of a feudal land, the C-level and their close adherents do not commonly enjoy an unvarnished view of the world. It is said that the Queen thinks that everywhere smells of new paint; a corporate CEO could get the impression that every office has working, clean, toilets, and every project will be green next week (if it isn’t already).

There are systemic ways to address this – and my area of expertise, Change Leadership, offers some specific opportunities around this – but this article isn’t about methodologies or formal structures.

The wise fool employs his licence to speak truth to power. Identifying the truth is not always easy – but often easier from the front lines of work than from the distance of seniority. For me that has usually taken the form of first establishing that this truthful relationship is desired. I prefer that honesty, but some people are not able to function in that atmosphere. This openness and honesty is tempered by a sensitivity to the context – if your key customer (or manager) is speaking in front of 200 people and get something wrong, that isn’t the right time to chime in and correct them!

In earlier days at work I would have followed the consensus on this, and let someone else be the one to do this. I long since abandoned the pretence to be one of the crowd; I consider part of my value to anyone who I am supporting – either as an explicit consultant (especially then), or as an interim Change Leader of some variety – to be the willingness, capability, and insight to speak the truth to them.

Of course I’ve never had anyone explicitly say “no, please lie to me”. While that might not be surprising, the covert culture in many organisations is exactly this. Disagree? How many status reports are ‘refined’ to ensure the ‘right message’ gets through? There may be people reading this who can honestly say they have never fudged a status report, or otherwise manipulated the information reported upwards, but I have seen enough examples to know that it’s a ubiquitous problem.

I accept that there are ways of communicating this that depend on timing, and the culture prevalent in an organisation. There are certainly cultures where the admission that a piece of work is not going perfectly is immediately and viciously punished. For someone working within a permanent position, with aspirations to a career progression or/and personal development, bucking that kind of culture can be the kiss of death. People do learn from the mistakes of others, and can become acutely alert to the difficulties in going against any corporate culture of “careful” messaging. This punitive kind of culture is destructive of long term value, and so undesirable for many shareholders, but many managers know no other way.

Honesty and openness needs to be tempered with an understanding of trust. I keep other people’s secrets – what others disclose is their decision, and they need to be answerable for, and comfortable with, that. I consider Fool’s licence to licence my own actions, not to give me a charter to snitch.

This feed of true information is important not just for bypassing the layers of message management which might otherwise interfere with making key decisions – and after all, making important decisions is what the most senior levels of management are for (that, and developing people). This is important as well – and most difficult – when what the Fool needs to say is “nuncle, you’ve got it wrong.” Even in the play King Lear, the Fool has the sense to be amusing in how he says that.

This is the moment when the foolishness of the honesty is closest to the surface: when you must tell someone senior that they are wrong. It needs to be handled with as much sympathy as for any other human – respect, and kindness, are not unnecessary. If the chance is still extant to persuade away from the wrong course of action, the wrong decision, the path is easier; if the decision is already made and communicated, and what you have to report is the consequence of a wrong decision, the path is harder. The relationship you have built before this point, and any reputation you have for telling the truth, these are your tools, and your defence. Sometimes it will go well, and not only be appreciated, but you will be able to help with planning for what to do next. It it quite likely to be a surprise to the senior person: there aren’t many Fools around.

So, to the title of my article, I’m a Fool. I thrive when I have fool’s licence. Just be careful what you wish for if you ask me to tell you the truth!

(originally posted on LinkedIn:


A beginning is a very delicate time

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care…” – Frank Herbert, Dune.

The title of this is taken from the 1984 film version of a book I enjoy tremendously, and both quotes are good observations, particularly reflecting the natural world.  New born creatures are delicate, and vulnerable.

With changes, you could be forgiven for thinking the same is true.  Certainly the behaviour around them in many large organisations would lead you to believe that.  The start of projects is often the time when bad news and negative thoughts are hidden, or manipulated.  Risks, downsides, recognised areas of doubt or uncertainty: these are not shared with the decision makers who decide which projects get to continue, and which need to wait.  People treat new projects, programmes, workstreams, unbuilt products as if they were newborn babies, gently, quietly, and with care.

The result is that far more projects (etc.) get attempted than should be; and both the inputs and outcomes of those projects are sometimes very different from what was expected.

The beginning of an endeavour like a project is not a time to be delicate.  It is a time to blow the bloody doors off.  It is a time to thrash around with the idea and see whether it really will hold water.  It’s a time to examine, to question, to try different ideas.  In a healthy, mature change organisation, a lot of changes will stumble at this hurdle.  Some will fall entirely, others will take time to be rethought and approached differently.  Some are already just right, and will go ahead with a confident step knowing that they have already been through a testing time and stood their ground.

Aside from the well known adages about the proportion of effort spent in design versus build, there are other important effects of getting things a bit more right early on, and its opposite.  Right: better-set expectations, the right support early on, well identified stakeholders and supporters.  Wrong: constant political firefighting, distracting detractors, the wrong stakeholders (see earlier comments about Decision Weakness).  Right: A good proportion of the right people in the team to start with.  Wrong: Hammers, where you needed screwdrivers.  Right: time to fight the battles that really need fighting.  Wrong: doing things you know are wrong for the business because a deadline is approaching but you can’t take the time to fix it.

This speaks to the culture of an organisation in general.  If there is a good culture of openness and transparency, the decision makers will know whether ideas are being presented to them having been through a challenging filter, and be better able to trust them; they will also know that a rejection now is not a rejection automatically forever.  If there is a culture of spin and misdirection, projects (and sometimes even programmes) will be started with the gatekeepers having one idea of what will be the outcome, when, and how, and the people in the change vehicle being launched either having a different idea or no idea at all.  “No idea at all” is absolutely fine when the people signing the cheque know that they are backing something entirely exploratory.  Indeed they should be reserving a portion of their change budget (organisation-wide) for just that sort of investment because that’s where the unexpectedly good returns and innovation come from.  It is never fine, however, when they have been sold a different expectation, and it will cause trouble for everyone involved, often particularly those least to blame for it.

One real world example I can think of involves a programme which was started with a very open idea within the culture of that programme – a “let’s see what we can achieve” kind of idea; however the parent organisation was under a much more concrete impression.  If there was a tacit agreement that it would be presented as concrete but continue as blue sky, that tacit agreement fell by the wayside when there was a change of executive management.  Suddenly the open money pit became far less open.  Expectations morphed into demands.  Before very long after the executive change, in my judgement after a generous period of time nonetheless, this programme was stopped.

In the process, the careers of the individual contributors at that institution were blighted.  They had spent a year, or several, working in a culture which was at odds with the parent company culture, acquiring a way of working alien to the parent company.  Their old positions were filled, permanently.  They were looked at, on returning, with a bit of suspicion.  By the end they had been directly disadvantaged financially – as they were deprived of performance bonuses because their programme had (abjectly) failed to achieve the targets it had been set.  If they were completely honest on their CVs when they left that organisation – many did, shortly after – they couldn’t point to the thing they’d worked really hard on being any kind of success, so perhaps even their post-company careers were blighted also.  I can think of dozens of people caught in this particular situation who had nothing to do with the failure of this particular programme.  Most of those I could see being to blame seem to be doing very well for themselves now, although I do know they too had to endure some tough days when things were evidently going badly while the programme was still being run.

Imagine instead a known, arm’s length more risk-oriented investment vehicle, created to attack innovation directly, with a properly understood acceptance of failure, and a deliberate attempt to bring things to a head appropriately quickly… no tarnishing of careers, no great surprise when it isn’t a raging success for any particular line of development, and everyone knows what they are getting into at the start.  (Incidentally, that’s what that company have now set up).

So, in summary: at the beginning, don’t handle the idea with kid gloves, beat the snot out of it.  If it’s still risky, make that really clear to the decision makers.  Changes are best beaten up early, if they are to avoid being beaten up often.



Expansion is non-linear

One of the first thoughts when you have a change where you have more money than you can currently spend, but less time than you currently need, is often to expand the team.

This can be a big mistake.

If the current team aren’t performing as well as they ought to be, adding more people will seldom fix the problem.  Quite a lot of reasons for poor performance by a team of contributors will only be worsened by additional people.  I’m most familiar with technology-enabled changes, so let’s take a few examples from that space.

If you’re having trouble getting the build to be stable, adding more developers – and letting them code new code – will not make the build more stable.  You’ll get more new code through, perhaps, with a proportion of mistakes – Erasse humanum est (Seneca?).  If you aren’t using automated testing (why not?), adding additional testers will increase the complexity of coordination between them, eat up time while they become familiar with the product and test scripts, and differing judgements may well alter the things identified as bugs (often: upwards).  More architects do not result in a quicker architecture (quite the reverse).  More designers do not result in faster design results.  More creatives … well actually, sometimes more creatives really does improve things – and I’ll come back to that in a bit.  If your team just isn’t performing with the velocity you expect (whether on Agile or waterfall or some other variation), adding extra people isn’t going to fix anything by itself.

You have to understand the problem you are solving by bringing in extra people.  If those people can start work without interrupting those who are already working, be productive entirely independently of the existing people, and deliver product to at least the same quality, extra people can help.  So many things we do in technology changes – and in many other spaces – are strongly interdependent, however, that many hands do NOT make light work, and it is rather a case of too many cooks spoil the broth.

Sometimes, the problem of speed is better solved by taking people away.

Now I know there are times when the person everyone wants to take away is the change leader – project manager, programme manager, scrummaster, whatever.  If they are serving the team/project/programme/organisation well, they aren’t harassing for pointless updates.  Sometimes, the only thing has been to go and get the coffees, teas, doughnuts or whatever, and if that’s all I can do: good enough.  Sometimes the thing I do which helps the team to get things done is intercept all the people who are trying to find out when the widget will be finished, and lead them away.  That’s definitely a valuable service.

Sometimes, though, it’s not as nice a job as that; because sometimes the right thing to do to allow the team to speed up is to remove someone from the team.

I’ve liked a lot of people I’ve worked with; and not all of them have been good at their job.  One of the difficult tasks in Change Leadership is spotting when someone is having a negative impact on the Change you need to bring about, and removing them from the position where they are able to cause a problem.

I had a pair of programmers pair-programming in a series of sprints.  One of the programmers was a rock star – not a prima donna – but extremely quick, very accurate, very effective.  (He’s also my go-to example for why asking for a number of years of experience is a bad metric of quality – after 9 months of Java programming he was without doubt the finest Java programmer I’ve ever come across.  He still is, years later).  The programmer he was paired with had, nominally, more experience.  He was also Mr Slow.  He was not stupid, and I don’t think he was lazy; but he had no drive for programming, and his attention wandered constantly.  Adding an extra pair of programmers would have meant slowing down while they got up to speed, and wouldn’t have solved the real problem.

The urgent problem wasn’t even the velocity of the project.  I could handle the customers well enough that we were fine with that, as it happened.  The real problem was the velocity of the rock star programmer.  It was painful to watch him have to shift mental gears to try to keep coaching the other programming, bringing him on board, helping him understand what had been coded, and then letting him have a contribution.  It was even MORE painful to watch the frustration and itchy fingers when Mr Slow ‘drove’ the keyboard.  I needed to resolve this problem so that I didn’t lose an outstanding programmer for the sake of being merciful to a far less exciting one.  Or to prevent a murder.

If you’re kind, you can often find something for the person who isn’t working out to do which is more to their skillset and preferences, and makes better use of them – which, after all, is good for them and good for the company.  He made a perfectly acceptable project manager in the end.

If you’re leading a change, and there’s money on the table to help you speed up, think hard about whether extra people will give you what you need, or whether there’s another underlying problem.  Remember that just because someone is offering you what they think will help you doesn’t mean you have to take it.