“I cannot help fearing that men may reach a point where they look on every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a toilsome trouble, every social advance as a first step toward revolution, and that they may absolutely refuse to move at all.”
–Alexis de Tocqueville
“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.”
Recently, on a random Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of receiving an irate phone call from a financial planner who took umbrage to the fact that I am strongly opposed to the assets under management fee model of financial planning. Granted, I’d only heard of this person that day when he responded to a comment of mine on another website, so he wasn’t completely unknown to me, but had you asked me who he was the day before, I’d have given you a completely blank stare.
Despite his anger and clearly emotional tone, since he was a fellow West Point graduate, I listened. He proceeded to tell me, among other things, that I didn’t know what it was “really like” since I was relatively new to financial planning. “Wait until you’ve been in the industry for 10 to 15 years before you make any opinions” was the wisdom that he imparted upon me.
Steve Jobs didn’t wait that long. Bill Gates didn’t wait that long. Thomas Edison didn’t wait that long. Elon Musk didn’t wait that long. Richard Branson didn’t wait that long. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t wait that long. I could write a list that would scroll for pages; you get the point, I trust.
I personally don’t have 10 to 15 years to wait until I start making opinions about anything in my life, whether it’s personal or professional. Had I taken that opinion, I’d have not co-founded, run, and later sold a software development company that was based on doing things differently than the bureaucratic waterfall method of computer programming which I’d seen in my two years at Capital One.
When I had my software development company, we intentionally brought in developers who were young, had non-traditional backgrounds, and took part in open source projects – meaning that, regardless of who they were, their merit was based on the quality of their code, not their ability to be political in an organization. We wanted fresh eyes to come in and question our ways of thinking. We didn’t always change, because, after all, sometimes we were right, but a lot of times we did because our previous way of developing software didn’t stand up to questioning and scrutiny when we were forced to truly dig in and answer for our decisions.
The discussions almost always started either with “why do we…” or “why don’t we try…” and went from there.
How does this apply to you?
In almost any job that’s out there, you’re going to be asked to bring value to the table. You’re not just inserting Tab A into Slot B eight hours a day, five days a week, and going home. You’re not Fred Flintstone, working at the rock quarry, breaking larger rocks into smaller rocks until the work whistle blows. You’re there to improve the value of your employer, and part of how you do that is by bringing ideas to the table. I love James Altucher’s advice to come up with 10 new ideas every single day.
Joseph Schumpeter and Why He’s in Your Workplace
Joseph Schumpeter was an economist who popularized the term “creative destruction” (well, he was Austrian, so it was probably schöpferischen Zerstörung – my German major comes in handy!) to discuss markets. He described capitalism as a process of continual innovation and of the destruction of the players in the market who refused to change with the times. Think of how the horse carriage makers responded to Henry Ford when he came out with his cars or of Thomas Watson, the founder, ironically, of IBM, who famously uttered “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Companies, no matter who or what they are, always have the potential for someone to be nipping at their heels if they don’t figure out a way to improve what they are offering in the market.
Most creative destruction ends up in a bad story for those who do not innovate. Think of the firms that Chris Anderson describes in his book Free. Newspapers, who had previously been able to charge a quarter a day and a dollar on Sunday found subscriber bases drying up and their prices going up because they had to compete with CNN, Google, and (at the time) Yahoo. The big television players faced competition from cable. The local video store faced competition from Netflix.
Unless you work for the federal government in a sequester or shutdown-proof job (and even then, who knows?), your job is not guaranteed. The existence of your employer is never guaranteed, except again, governments, who may grow and shrink based on how the economy is doing.
Thus, you’re responsible for playing your part in helping ensure the future existence of your employer. Your part may be small, and it may be limited in scope, but it exists, particularly if you work in an environment where the most common answer is “because that’s how it’s always been done.”
How to question things without being that annoying nag
There’s definitely a wrong way to approach change. If you come in anywhere with the attitude that you know everything and that there’s a new sheriff in town, you’ll never get the chance to make change, even when change is necessary. In fact, you may be in a situation that is almost completely the opposite – most everything goes very well, and there might only be a few changes necessary.
If you want to have a positive impact and to be a change agent, then you’ll need to do some of the following:
- Observe for a period of time. It usually takes a good 90 days around a new organization to get a true sense of what is happening and how things are currently done. You may spot things in that duration which need to change. Don’t press the issue. Write down the ideas so that you don’t forget, but unless it’s blatantly wrong (plugging in a 120 volt plug into a 220 volt outlet) or dangerous, just add it to the list. You also need to…
- Build credibility and allies. If you don’t get to know people in your organization and identify who the influencers are, then the reaction you’re most likely to receive when you start to suggest ideas is “who the heck [ed note: “heck” won’t be the word most of them use] is this person coming in here trying to tell us how to do things?” You need to build trust and credibility by demonstrating understanding and competence, and you need to get some allies who will rally around your ideas and help you to implement them.
- When you do ask questions, don’t simply ask “why?” If you keep asking “why?” you’re going to sound like the five year old who keeps asking why over and over again. You’ve been around that person. You know how irritating that person can be. Don’t be that person. Instead, ask using the pattern of “do you [whatever] so that you can [achieve specific result]?” Showing that you’re looking at outcomes and results will both demonstrate an understanding of the business problem that you’ve been brought aboard to help solve, and it will also get others to think about the path from whatever it is you’re asking about to the desired solution.
- Frame your questions in terms of potential solutions. If you have an idea of how something can improve, then ask a question about the potential of your approach, i.e. “Would [YOUR APPROACH] also succeed in [ACHIEVING DESIRED OUTCOME]?”
- Never make it about the person, but, instead, about the activity. A good way to alienate people is to go after them. Always focus questions and criticism about the process rather than anyone (even nameless higher-ups, since you may one day be one yourself).
- Offer to test the solutions on your own time. You don’t want to be perceived as the mad scientist wasting time in the laboratory with your grand experiments, so offer to test out the solutions outside of normal working hours so that they don’t interfere with normal working processes. Document, document, document. Be able to show the results to generate support.
- Learn about and then implement A/B testing. You want to also demonstrate that there were isolated changes which caused the outcomes you’re looking to achieve. One of the best ways to do this is through A/B testing (sometimes called champion/challenger testing). Having rigorous A/B tests will give support and credibility to your assertions.
If we all waited ten to fifteen years to question things, then there would be very little entrepreneurship. We’d be staid. Nobody would jump on market opportunities. Things which are patently wrong wouldn’t get fixed, because we’d be waiting for people to gain the “necessary experience” to have a “valid opinion” on them.
Be curious. Don’t accept things just because someone tells you “that’s the way they are” or “that’s the way they’ve always been done.” You’re getting paid to deliver value. Deliver more value than expected. It will pay off personally and professionally. Always have an open mind and always think creatively and think of new ideas. You’d be surprised at how it affects both your job and the rest of your life. You’ll come up with new concepts and notions to test everywhere, both in and out of work, and you’ll be happier as a result.
If you’re in one of those places that only accepts ideas from people who have been around for ten or fifteen years, leave. You don’t want to work in such a stultifying environment. There are many more important things in life than money, and banging your head against the wall living as an automaton for ten years while you achieve the necessary “experience” to be able to affect change will drive you nuts.