Thursday, July 06, 2006

Knowledge v/s ignorance

"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge."

Daniel J. Boorstin (1914 - )

I would say obstacles are lack of optimism, demotivating people around you, nay-sayers and what not. Overcoming all this to discover something lasting can feel so difficult that you would think all that there is to discover has already been discovered and nothing is left.

First and foremost and most irritating obstacle I can think of is people saying 'it won't work.' This is just intolerable when they say it when there are no better ideas from anyone. They just do not want to go with your idea so they try their best to demotivate you. Other people who also take comfort in status quo join them and there you have formidable obstacle to overcome before you can even start discovering something. So much energy is wasted in overcoming such attitudes that there is hardly anything left for discovery.

Management gurus warn against having all yes sayers. That is true. But, to have a devil's advocate just for the sake of it is worse than any kind of torture you can imagine. Dream team to work with is a bunch of smart, opinionated and independent thinkers. Who understand the meaning of making some decision in a given time with the best information at hand and then putting their best to see if it works. If it does not work, we will have learnt one way that does not work. There are only so many more ways and one of them is bound to work. We pick ourselves up and move on try to next alternative with renewed enthusiasm.

Sometimes it is hard to make people see your way of doing things. This is especially true when they have another way to do things. In such cases, it makes sense to let the person try his or her way and then discover for themselves if that works. It may seem to be an extra step and time consuming. But, it will go a long way in securing their buy in next time without much opposition. They will have respect for your insight and appreciation for your letting them try their way.

However, we have to be very careful when we let people to purse their way over what we would have liked them to do. You have to have an informal contract about how long you are going to allow the person to try their way of doing something, what will be the success criteria and how and when do you revisit to review. If you come to a common understanding on all this, it won't be too hard to bring them back to your track later on. It is certainly a challenge to dissuade people when they say "I am 90% complete". Last 10% takes another 300% of the time already spent. One way to retort is to ask how many more days they will need for next review. This is a very reasonable question. If you are 90% complete, I think you should have a very good sense of how much more time you need for remaining 10%. This will make people rethink how far they have progressed. If they tell some very high number, you can say tell that what they would need is far more than what can be allowed per your original discussion and it is time to move on. If they need only a small amount of additional time, it is fine to allow that.

Bottom line is you want people to want to follow you. You can not force them. In order to do that, you have to give them ample room to experiment and see things for themselves. If not, they may follow you but you will never be able to lead. With flat organizations with loose hierarchy we have to pay this price to foster team work. Command and control style of leadership does not work in new product development and it is not good either.


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