As the year draws to a close, I find myself thinking about the events of the last twelve months; my successes, failures and the things I've learned along the way. It's at this time more than any other, we collectively reflect on our actions and consider how we might improve in the year to come.
For me personally, this year has cemented something I think I've been aware of for a long time but has taken years to properly set in my mind. It's taken so long because it's a very uncomfortable thing to accept and even more uncomfortable thing to publicly admit to. Once you get enough people to accept it of themselves and of others though, you have everything you need to create success.
So in the spirit of the new year, I'm going to share a confession and resolution. One that, at face value is significantly simpler and easier to keep than any gym membership you might have in mind. In practice, though, this takes real courage and confidence to bring to the workplace but when harnessed properly, I'm convinced it brings results like nothing else.
Yep, this really could be that silver bullet you have been looking for! Unfortunately, the gun is pointed right back at you. If you want to succeed, all you have to do is pull the trigger.
So here it is. Here's my big confession...
I don't know what I'm doing!
What‽ How can a self-proclaimed 'software badass' say they don't know what they're doing? That doesn't sound very badass at all does it? Well no,.. but let me explain a little. Let me tell you my story and how I came to this realisation.
I consider myself to be an expert in most aspects of software development. I've done most jobs in the industry and I've led, coached, mentored and managed teams towards effectiveness in all sorts of organisations and roles. I have put in a huge amount of effort and hard work so that I can say I'm book-smart and street-smart without hyperbole or guilt. I am a bit obsessed with building my skills and knowledge.
Over a number of years, I built a thorough understanding of the technical things from simple test-driven-development to large-scale distributed computation and real-time systems. At the end of all that learning, the main thing I came to realise was that if I wanted to make a real difference, I would need more than just myself. It was great that my skills were sharp but to create meaningful impact, I'd need to learn to harness the power of many people. I couldn't do it on my own. So I ventured into leadership and eventually coaching and management.
In this new world, technology didn't matter as much as it used to but building great teams and being able to work with the local politics definitely did. So I spent my evenings studying group psychology, negotiation and influencing techniques, body language, motivation and all manner of skills and techniques of that ilk. In the end, I had some truly great teams that were successful in many ways and yet it still wasn't always enough. Even when my teams were performing fantastically, the products we built and organisations we worked for still sometimes failed.
Worse than that, it often felt like our successes weren't shared with the rest of the business and their successes weren't shared with us. We didn't even know how they defined success. Sales people still made promises they knew we couldn't live up to. Project managers still made plans that were unrealistic. Businesses adopted dogmatic practices and routinely lied to one another in order to maintain their public images.
After a year or so fighting all of that I realised I would need to be able to meet the rest of the business on their own terms. The whole business. I needed to understand the motivations of every department I hadn't been completely aligned with in the past if I was going to help. So I got back to the books.
I started by learning 'traditional' project management. I studied PRINCE2 back to front. I learned PERT, risk management techniques and Critical Chain Management. I learned to spot problems in a Gantt chart from the opposite side of the room. Some of those skills are still surprisingly useful to me today.
I kinda 'got' agile development (mainly Scrum at that point) but I decided it was time to really do the homework and study some of the practices leading up to it. If I was going to help people move away from approaches that were failing, I'd better fully understand the solution I was proposing. So with that, I dove deep into the Theory of Constraints, lean manufacturing, the Kanban Method, queueing theory and Six-Sigma. I learned all the math and statistics that go with along with those disciplines. More recently I've learned everything I could from things like SAFe, DAD and other scaled agile approaches and I've had some success using parts of all of it.
After I was done learning and applying as much as I could from project management I moved on.
My first port of call was new product development. Then after that, I went on to supply chain management, stakeholder management, finance, accounting and business strategy. I am still adding to that list of skills though I still haven't quite managed to motivate myself to take sales training yet; I don't think I'd enjoy it!
I can't say I'm a leading authority in any of those things but I can hold an intelligent conversation about the theory and practice of them all and I've tried to use everything I've learned in the real world. Sometimes, it worked well, sometimes not so much. I'm still learning.
So after all that study and experience, did anything change? Sort of but not in the way you'd think.
I still occasionally have disagreements with people. Sometimes people are pleasantly surprised when I know something about what they do. Sometimes they resent it too. Understanding lots of different aspects of business didn't directly help me create meaningful success but it did lead to what are probably the most important things I've learned so far.
- Most things worth doing are very difficult to do well.
- I don't have all the answers.
- Nor does anyone else.
- Nobody likes to admit it.
- When we do, it allows us to figure it out together.
In every discipline I've studied, I've found some standardised approaches and best-practices. More often than not, those practices have been dogmatically followed and utterly abused. We all too often act as if we have it all wrapped up; as if running a successful organisation is a solved problem. It really isn't and we all know it.
I think the Bluetones put it best when they said "You don't have to have the solution. You've got to understand the problem". We need each other's help to do that so that we can see from all angles.
Every example of failure in my own career started with either my own or somebody else's fear of vulnerability or ego getting in the way of true cross-discipline collaboration.
Every example I could give you of success has started with either me or someone else asking another person for help getting to where I or they wanted to be. Every single one. Especially when it's from someone outside of my field.
So what's my new year's resolution? To continually "empty my cup, so that it may be filled" ( Bruce Lee :-) ) and to encourage others to do the same. To remember and to remind people that everyone is in the same boat. Nobody has this all figured out yet.
Everyone has a difficult job and that we're all doing the best with what we've got. Sometimes it's going to feel like we are working at odds with each other and that's when we need each other's help the most.
We don't know what we're doing...
...But we're going to succeed anyway because we're smart. We've put the hours in to learn from those before so we don't repeat all of their failures but we realise that modern businesses operate in new, uncharted territory. We understand that what we think we already know isn't going to cut it anymore. If we're going to win in this world we have to carve our own path, uncover new 'best' practices and do it with everyone working together with open minds and humility.
For that to happen, we'll have to let go of the idea that we should all know what we're doing and start figuring it out together; unafraid to admit that we're all still learning. There is no 'right way' anymore.
Or at the very least, we haven't found it yet. But let's take on the challenge and keep trying!
Happy New Year.