Humble, Humble, Humble

‘In the face of change, the competent are helpless‘. This is the title of a 1999 Fast Company article by Seth Godin.

Today, more than 10 years later, that phrase still resonates when I am in the middle of a ‘technical’ meetings. At least,’Technical’ is how those meetings start – until we peel off some layers.

Here is the setting: The user of a system is face-to-face with the consultant to figure out a problem. The user needs a solution and the consultant is competent without any doubt.¬† So this can’t go wrong! Right?

Unfortunately it almost did. Today I witnessed a user asking for a tool to make sure that she could confirm stock availibility and delivery dates to her customers. The context is the following: the user works in a competitive environment where customers demand agressive deadlines. On top of that the consultants are here to switch the computer systems to an ERP program, which – in the long run – will make planning and throughput transparent.

So the user asks for tools to guarantee that the future solution will not inhibit the commitments to the customer. And then it happened: the consultant was sprinting into premature solving of what he thought was the problem: ‘You want a tool? Sure – this means installing the ‘hard allocation’ widget! So he prompted the customer for business cases, feasibility studies, specs and signatures. In return, the user looked puzzled. This was clearly not what she expected as an answer.

To my own amazement I was able to unlock the situation by tapping into my ignorance. The only thing I did was saying: “I’m sorry but I don’t really know how this works in practice, so could you tell me a little more about the situation?

Turns out that the user was insecure about parameters that allow date and quantity confirmation to the customer. Insecure about where to find these data in the future system, she made the mistake of asking for a ‘tool’. After some talking we could convince the competent consultant that the real question was a ‘request for assistance’ and not an ERP on top of the existing ERP. Instead of doing some ‘humble inquiry’ as Edgar Shein would call it, the consultant sprinted towards his competence: his comfort zone. He would be better off if he resisted premature resolution and tried to access his ignorance like I did.

Seth Godin wrote his 1999 rant as a result of meeting with a competent architect, but his conclusions are valid in the exact scene I was part of today. Godin concluded:
In fact, competence is the enemy of change!” and he continued: “Competent people have a predictable, reliable process for solving a particular set of problems. They solve a problem the same way, every time. That’s what makes them reliable. That’s what makes them competent. Competent people are quite proud of the status and success that they get out of being competent. They like being competent. They guard their competence, and they work hard to maintain it.
Beware the competent. Competent people are strange people with comfort zones that exert gravitational power in any discussion or setting they are involved in. The book Helping by Edgar Shein comes in quite handy for mirroring their inquiry, diagnosis and resolution styles. Humble Inquiry and Pure Inquiry (accessing your ignorance) are two concepts of Schein’s book that could have resolved Godin’s problem (and ours too).