Rounding off the corners

You know the type: the technical experts on top of their game, the best in the business, the undisputed gurus, the acknowledged experts. You might even be one of them. And if you are, you’re a danger to yourself, the organization you work for, and everyone around you.

The point at which you achieve this exalted height, the point at which you figure you’ve got it all figured out, is the point at which things can start to go downhill quickly. If you’re the best at what you do (or even if you just think you are), you’re in peril, you are a hazard, the minute you think that you don’t have anything else to learn, although you’d be excused for thinking that. After all, who knows as much as you do?

But it’s true: once you’re on top, there’s no place to go but down. Think about those high-demand colleagues of ours who “got to the top” and tried to “stay at the top” as SAP implementation experts, or as Novell network gurus. Where are they now?

As the wise man once said, “shift happens.”

Like it or not, we’re done for if the rough edges and hard corners of our expertise and operating assumptions aren’t being rubbed (and sometimes broken) off every day.

“Finished” and “satisfied” are both mileage markers on the short road to “dead.”

All is not lost, however, and a crash and burn from the top isn’t inevitable. Those who thrive over the long term have learned that the best thing they can do is prepare for, invite and encourage the kind of thinking that runs counter to their own, to welcome with open arms ideas, concepts and technologies that will challenge and ultimately cast aside everything they know and hold to be true.

In effect, the best of us get in the rock polisher every day. Remember the rock polishers some of us had (not me of course, but people I knew) in the ’70s? After weeks of turning over a small drum full of rocks and grit (we put in finer and finer grit as the weeks passed), day after day, around the clock, it produced a handful of highly polished rocks. For the life of me, I can’t remember why we wanted polished rocks in the first place, but the rock polisher works just fine as a metaphor.

Are you operating in the rock polisher every day? Do you expect to improve your effectiveness and leadership skills by having your own technology decisions and assumptions challenged on a daily basis? Do you invite constructive criticism? Do you actively seek out people who disagree with your thinking? If you’re the expert in a certain technology, do you adjust for and openly-acknowledge your bias for that which you know best? Do you recognize that you’re probably one of those “If your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail” kind of people?

In our business, in all businesses, the winners in the long term will encourage debate and new ideas and active discussion, even at their own expense, knowing that thinking and leadership and relationships only get stronger by a constant interaction with differing and challenging viewpoints.

Watch the leaders who stay leaders: they’re inclined to say things like: “Tell me why what I’m thinking won’t work.” They’re guys like Jack Welch at GE, who hired a whole raft of people specifically for the purpose of identifying ideas, technologies and business models that could kill off all or part of the GE empire. Those most at risk and decidedly un-Jack-like say things like (or even just think things like) “That’s stupid”, because it doesn’t jibe with the experience that put them on top in the first place.

Even if you’re not convinced by countering arguments or perspectives (and most often you won’t be), even if your mind isn’t changed, the mental exercise and flexibility engendered by the exercise of constantly rounding off your thinking will make for a much stronger IT professional, and likely an all-around better person.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at