Friday, December 30, 2011

Don't judge too quickly

Something like this must have happen to you, right? You jump into conclusions with partial information and you feel that the conclusion you reached is the truth. But later you get the rest of the relevant information and find out you were absolutely wrong. Is this the kind of thing that makes you mad at yourself? Well, maybe you shouldn't... unless you just trashed a brand new convertible Mercedes!

Common sense
Earlier this month I wrote a guest post on Michael Greer's blog, PM Resources. Michael challenged me (and many others) to answer the question "What's the one simple thing to improve Project Management" and the first thing that came to mind was "common sense". One of the virtues of common sense is that it allows us to make fast decisions, the main reason for this being that common sense doesn't need to be true - you just need to believe that it is true.
We used to believe that the world was flat. And that was OK because that would answer all our needs. The fact that the world isn't flat wouldn't benefit us in any way until we had different needs such as sailling long distances.
On the other hand, if you try to dig into all the facts and explain everything to be sure where the truth lies, you won't get much work done - if any at all. Not explaining everything allows us to react much faster to everything around us.

But sometimes you are wrong
Like the man in the video, sometimes you find out you were wrong. And this is the tricky part: to be aware and check when you need to re-calibrate your own common sense. In a way, the man in the video was lucky because he did find he was wrong - and this is something that doesn't always happen. But assuming you were wrong, how do you deal with it? The easy answer is to adapt when your common sense doesn't seem to work any more in any particular situation - and so you dig a little bit deeper. But common sense is, amongst other things, a set of beliefs. How easy can it be to question your own beliefs?

Re-calibrating your beliefs...
A good example of this is when you're working with people from other cultures. A lot of what you see going on doesn't seem right to you. For instance, you may be used to start meetings exactly at the scheduled time. But time after time you see that people show up 10 or 15 minutes later - and that may seem to you as a sign that they don't respect you or/and your work. On every such meeting, you enforced the need to start the meetings on time and everyone seemed to agree but on the next meeting everyone is late just the same.
There are 2 ways to deal with this, equally valid. You can force the meetings to start on time or you can adapt to the local culture. Both have risks and benefits associated to them, so there's no single answer to this.
What makes this particularly difficult is that you're so used to explaining things the way you do that it never occurs to you that you may have another perspective on the subject.

...Your own way
You can try to force meetings to start on time by being on the meeting room on time and by starting the meeting as soon as someone else gets there. Anyone arriving late to a running meeting has lost something already and that's something no one likes (another assumption in the common sense style - but it has worked for me so far), so the the odds are that the next meeting people will be on time. Unless, and this is the risky part, that people get offended by this attitude - and it can happen.

...Or adapting yourself
If you decide to adapt to the local culture, the best thing is to be sure you understand it. One way to do this is to explain your problem to someone you trust enough to clarify and explain to you how things work - which may not be easy. I have the perfect story to illustrate this. I have a friend who was invited by a friend of his to visit him almost on the opposite side of the planet. The first time they went out for dinner, my friend ate everything that was served in an attitude intended to show that he enjoyed the meal. But after they all finished his friend took him to yet another restaurant to have dinner again! He did try to get some reason for this but that took him nowhere - and got no explanation for a second dinner. But something was definately wrong, so my friend watched closely how others behaved at the table and noticed they all left some food in an attitude intended to show they were full and already had everything they could. So he did the same. Problem solved.

And the point is...
...That you must use common sense and you must be wrong from time to time. That is not important, not even relevant. What is relevant and important is what you do when you're wrong: do you blame someone else? Or can you question your beliefs?

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