The Purposeful Professional | 10 August 2017
10 August 2017
10 August 2017
During the recent Celerated course in Project Management Methodologies, our excellent instructor, Prof Maureen Tanner, put the following words on the screen:
Understand what your client hopes to achieve from the project.
This is not just another way to say "determine project requirements", she explained. Instead, it involves a seismic shift of mindset, from aiming to establishing what is required, to seeking to understand why it is required. Too many professionals think of their tasks in purely syntactic terms, focusing on rules and procedures, when instead their approach should be semantic, emphasising the meaning of the whole activity.
In the book Business Ethics & Other Paradoxes, George Hull gives an account of an interview he conducted with a worker in an electronics factory, "Marleen", in 1999. Her job was to place components onto a conveyor belt, so that a machine could connect them to large, shiny tubes. Here is what followed Hull's suggestion that the tubes were for television sets:
Marleen: That's what I figured out after a while, after questioning several people.
G.H.: Oh, but you didn't know - at the beginning you didn't even know it was part of a television?
Marleen: No. No, I had no idea.
G.H.: And so when you were introduced to this, did the lady - the co-ordinator - did she tell you what the tubes - the things-were for?
Marleen: She didn't really know.
G.H.: She didn't know herself?
Marleen: She didn't know herself. And she was working there for 25 years.
It is staggering that anyone could do a job for most of her adult life without ever finding out the ultimate purpose of what she does. From our current perspective, it seems equally shocking that this reductionist approach was commercially successful on the assembly line. Tanner's point is that it would doom a contemporary business. Someone who aims only to satisfy the explicit requirements will often miss the main target altogether, like the child who was asked to put the words "dog", "pig" and "cat" in alphabetical order, and gave the answer "dgo", "igp" and "act". Marks for following instructions: 10. For achieving the purpose: zero.
Deidre van der Merwe, a SQL programmer at RisCura, explains how this could easily happen in her work: "if you try to develop without understanding the environment, you'll create reports that don't do what they're intended for: they'll draw attention to the data that doesn't matter much, and obscure or downplay the essential information." Several benefits will thus emerge when you really understand your client's purposes: far fewer errors based on miscommunications and omissions; greater ease in seeing how a set of requirements cohere; much more fruitful conversations about how best to do things; and ongoing attention to the implications, for your client, of changes in business and technology. In short, you reposition yourself from someone who carries out orders to a partner in operations, even in strategy.
To achieve these sorts of gains we must first change our attitude: zoom out from the narrow focus on creating a list of specialised requirements, so that we can clearly see the big picture, and thus attain a deep awareness of the client's ultimate aims.
Yet attitude alone is not enough: aptitude is also required. And that means being an expert in your client's context. If what the financial analyst is asking for sounds to you like nothing more than a bunch of meaningless widgets, then it's time to learn the client's domain. IT professionals working in financial services must know the industry, be familiar with the instruments they work with, be able to use financial concepts and techniques, and be fluent in the language. This is why Celerated has developed the short course Finance for IT Professionals, which seeks to ensure that every delegate with the right attitude will understand their work at the most fundamental levels.
No doubt, the job of the factory worker "Marleen" is now done by a machine. To have a long and successful career, we all need to do our best to make our job as unlike Marleen's as possible. One way to do that is to ensure that we constantly understand the ultimate purpose of our work. Not only will it make us less replicable, it will make our clients happier, and our work more stimulating and meaningful.