Categories
Empathy Foundational Values

Oh No, Not Again!

As a leader, there is no doubt you’ve been saturated with writing and lessons in empathy. Since empathy was at the center of my life studies, there was a time when I was going to write a book about it. As some folks might say: “But Amazon.

Given all that, what could I offer you in regard to empathy that you might not have already read?

You and I likely agree that, in order for you to do a world-class job at eliciting requirements in any discipline, your ability to hone your empathy skills is of utmost importance.

But one thing that I will share with you that many other writers might not is: no matter what your experience with empathy, if you are to get somewhere great, the work is very, very difficult. After all, if it were that easy, why would there be so many books to try to teach you how to make it easy? Empathy is a lot like running, biking, swimming, or weightlifting. It takes regular exercise and practice to keep you at the top of your game.

When I teach software engineers about empathy, nothing I have found illustrates how hard it is to empathize well better than the following exercise:

The next time PowerBall or MegaMillions begins to ramp up to an insane value, have everyone in your team buy a ticket. Not in the shared office sense, mind you…no, have every single person buy his or her own ticket.

(In order to really do this exercise well, it’s important for each person to have actually bought a ticket. Disclaimer: please don’t do this if you have a gambling addiction. I do care for you.)

Knowing that each person has an actual chance at winning (while simultaneously acknowledging the old adage that the lottery is a tax on people who failed math), have each person ponder:

“What will life be like if I won?”

You will find your teammates saying all sorts of interesting things. But here’s the rub: If you don’t get at least a little scared of a few things, you’re not thinking hard enough.

I’m not going to try to explain why in this post — I can follow up on that at a later time. But the point is: if you cannot empathize with a future version of yourself, how can you empathize with somebody else?

The answer: because empathizing is hard.

Almost all work is a requirements elicitation exercise. From coal mining to neuroscience, from taking orders for tacos to sending people to Mars, we all spend much of our time at work understanding other people’s problems so that we can formulate solutions.

The key to successful requirements elicitation is in understanding the people we are serving, and empathy is the key.

But it is hard. Work on it. Every. Single. Day.

More to come.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gV-kTMGUwI. And you thought it was going to be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nH_xiZZheg4.

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Categories
Foundational Values Humility

It’s a Trick! Don’t Fall for It!

What do your teammates call the audience for the software you create or deploy for your organization?

  1. Employees
  2. End users
  3. Humans
  4. Associates
  5. Users
  6. Customers

If I were a betting man — or a cheap psychic — I might bet that your answer is 2 or 5. Despite my wary ways, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that you didn’t answer with 3.

I confess that over my decades in this business, answer 5 has been a common label for me to use as well. But with each passing year, if that word slips out of my mouth, I feel ever so slightly more sick.

Why?

I’m going to be lazy here and quote myself from an interview I did in 2019 with Phil Weinzimer:

I encourage my teams to avoid the terms “users” and “end users” whenever possible. These terms imply a class divide. Arguably, our industry has adopted these terms to help us empathize with people who we are not. But I find that to be an incomplete thought. It’s a very condescending concept when you think about it. We are all people, and we share similar limitations. If we are solving problems, and we create an “us” versus “them” scenario, we are really not putting ourselves in the same bucket as our customers. Some people will say to this, well, if I create something that works for me as an engineer, it will not work well for a non-engineer. I say: don’t create something that works for you as an engineer. Create something that works for you as a non-engineer. If you cannot get in touch with your inner non-engineer, then I believe you have further personal development to do!

https://thestrategicciojournal.com/2019/03/18/cios-outlook-people-process-technology-formula-for-business-success/

Listen to your teams over several hours or days. You will likely hear the term “users” pop up from time to time, and it might just start to feel like weeds or crabgrass in your lawn or garden in mid-summer. I might argue that this is the most basic indicator of a lack of humility in our field that you can find.

It is wise to remember that we are all simple bags of blood and bones. No one of us is more special than another. We may be asked to perform duties because of certain willingness or abilities, but the people who we serve deserve every minute of us being just like them that we can give them. You will never — never — deliver a brilliant solution to the people you serve when you come to the table as the person who you are, but who they are not.

If this is starting to sound like a discussion about empathy, you’d be onto something. But empathy is most attainable if we start with a foundation of humility, and we have plenty of time to discuss empathy at another time.

Will you admit that you are a small, meek animal in a universe that is infinitely larger than you are? Will you admit that you really understand very little, and that you will never truly understand everything about your life?

If not, why not? What have you got to lose?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j13oJajXx0M

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Categories
Foundational Values Vulnerability

Hey, What’s Your Angle?

For the very first blog post here, I want to address my motivation.

A good friend of mine recently shared:

“I have always feared executives. They always have an agenda and they have the power to hurt me. I have trusted very few executives in my career.”

Can you relate to that?

If you are an executive or a manager of any kind, there is authority baked into your role, and that very authority all-too-easily gets in the way of our human relationships. People are conditioned to follow people in positions of labeled authority, whether it is in their best interest or not. While it is one thing to be followed, it is an entirely different thing to be trusted. Early on in our journey on The Progressive CIO, it bears noting that this dynamic will be at the very heart of our discussions.

The notion of vulnerability is something that springs to mind, and there is a reason that I list it first on the values that you see on this site.

We are born vulnerable, and if we are lucky enough to grow past childhood into adulthood, it is our very vulnerability that encourages others to protect us, to guide us, and to groom us.

As adults, when we see a young adult, our minds seem to appreciate the independence of the creature who stands before us. We do not attempt to steer or offer guidance to that person in the same way we would an infant. You must recall the feelings you sometimes have when you speak with young adults who think they “know it all” — you know that nothing you could offer will give them what time and experience will.

As we grow, others around us are much less likely to guide us in the way we were when we were young…when we were vulnerable.

But if we can show vulnerability to others as adults — as leaders — something remarkable happens. If I say to someone:

I am afraid of something.
I am lacking something.
I need help with something.
I am sad about something.
I am confused about something.

…what happens? Others are more likely to step in to help me and to guide me, and I stand a much better chance of learning something as a result. Why is that? Because humans are so well-conditioned to help others who are willing to show vulnerability and ask for help. It is immediately relatable, because inside, we are all filled with doubts. We too often hide those doubts in the interest of looking confident. But that gets us absolutely nowhere good and is, in fact, the ultimate manifestation of the lack of true self-confidence.

Truly self-confident people know who they are inside. They can admit when they do not know something because they are not ashamed of it. Most importantly, they know that if they expose those vulnerabilities, they are much more likely to learn and grow through the help of others.

The fear of executives — of anybody in a position of authority — has a clear mitigation strategy for those who are feared: Develop the ability to show vulnerability at the times you are feeling vulnerable. You will help others to do the same, it will be easier for others to come to trust you, and you will see remarkable results in your teams, from those who elicit software requirements to those who provide help desk support. You will spark a chain reaction that will bring joy to those who you serve. We’ll talk in great depth about this in posts to come.

My angle for The Progressive CIO is to provide thoughtful discussions in print form that can be shared, digested, and considered by teams of technology leaders as they face their own challenges. The goal is to build a central repository of information that is easily available to help foster what I believe is a more rewarding approach to technology leadership.

Any questions?

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7etn2czISU

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