With all due respect to the many fine folks I’ve worked with in the career I’ve spent decades pursuing: we IT types can be an idiosyncratic, even odd, bunch. That’s actually well known to us all, and it generally makes great fodder for this blog.
I find the sociology of the profession—how people interact with one another—as fascinating as everything else about it. Here are three interesting behavioral syndromes I’ve observed over the many years of IT projects and teams I’ve been a part of. And as with most of my observations of this nature, I’m not presenting them from “on high”: no, I’ve been at times as susceptible to these behaviors as anyone. They’re common, and easy to fall into, but all of them are things I strive to avoid. And all of them have a common thread, as you will see.
I’ve retitled the standard name for this syndrome: the usual term for it is actually “Male Answer Syndrome”, which UrbanDictionary.com defines as “the tendency, especially among males, to make educated (?) guesses about subjects and present them as fact.” Well, in my experience among IT professionals, it’s hardly limited to males. It’s unfortunately common for many IT people, of either gender, to venture assured-sounding explanations based on little more than a desire to appear knowledgeable. I remember early in my career hearing one peer explain, with no factual basis for his theory, why his document hadn’t come off the printer yet: “That printer is obviously getting a lot of erroneous packet hits lately.”
Whether it’s a suddenly contrived explanation of why something isn’t working or the delivery of a detailed but basically invented treatise on the technical underpinnings of a new device, it seems that it’s easy to find people in IT who just don’t like to use the phrase, “I don’t know.” Or even to couch it as, “here’s one possible theory.” Instead, out comes a categorical statement of “here’s what explains this.” Assumed Omniscience. As a peer, or especially as a manager of people who are subject to this syndrome, it’s important to be wary of this. It never hurts to constantly reinforce that the work culture needs to be one where facts reign, and where theories are clearly identified as such.
Second: Chooser’s Remorse
In business in general, not to mention frequently in the case of IT, it seems that we often encounter situations where there is no ideal solution. After copious brainstorming, the group wrestling with such a situation usually figures out several different approaches to the problem, and debates these at length, carefully identifying pros and cons. Each of the identified solutions has definite downsides, usually; none is obviously superior and thus the clear approach to choose. Each approach has its adherents and detractors among the group of influencers / decision-makers. All this is normal, and common.
But of course, the choice among these alternatives needs to be made eventually, and when it is, what often happens? The very people who participated in the selection proceed to complain loudly and incessantly about the downsides of the chosen alternative. Chooser’s Remorse, I call it. And yes, this occurs despite the group having (supposedly) picked the least onerous or distasteful of the several possibilities, and despite going through endless discussion of all of them prior to the selection. Instead of people remembering that the choice represented the “least bad” alternative, they turn and harp about how awful it is.
And, just as the Assumed Omniscience syndrome isn’t limited to males, Chooser’s Remorse isn’t limited to IT people. We all do it. Perhaps it’s human nature, and perhaps it just comes out extra often in IT circles because of having to make frequent tough choices among not-so-great alternatives.
I’ve found it useful to remind people, as the choice of the “least awful among the bad alternatives” is made, that we’ve identified its downsides and are choosing it anyway. And that whining about the downsides later will be both ridiculous and counter-productive. Let facts prevail over emotion.
According to historical sources, a Roman statesman named Cato The Elder became known for ending every single one of his speeches, no matter what the subject, with some variation of the phrase “Carthago delenda est”: “Carthage must be destroyed”.
And this relates to IT, um, how? Well, I’ve seen exactly this sort of fixation appear in our world time and again. Whether it’s a zealous advocacy of a particular development methodology, a vocal fanboyism towards this or that vendor, or an unwavering devotion to a language or technology over all others: all of these affect people’s business judgment and undermine a necessary professional impartiality. No matter what the topic of discussion in a meeting, I’ve seen such fixations crop up, via sudden declarations not much different in nature to inserting a sudden and unrelated “Carthago delenda est” into one’s casual remarks.
I was a new VP of IT once for a group that experienced a great success with a software rollout shortly after my arrival. I proposed to my operations manager that we have a team outing to Starbucks to celebrate. (Yes, call me a party animal). “Oh, no,” he said. “My guys won’t go to Starbucks.” Hmm, I said. They don’t like Starbucks’ coffee? “No,” he explained. “Starbucks announced a big corporate deal with Microsoft recently, and my team won’t have anything to do with Microsoft.” Fixation. Emotion reigning over facts, once again.
We all bring our biases and predilections to work with us every day, but all of us can work on purposefully leaving these behind as much as we can, and, again, letting facts rule the day. Other than a healthy drive towards high quality work, and integrity and kindness in our interactions with others, we should allow nothing to become a fixation for us.