Posts Tagged ‘Kompetens’

Know your strengths and learn to like your weaknesses

October 15, 2017

Human beings are complex. We don’t understand our strengths. We never receive any proper help in identifying them. Let alone to speak them out loud. We view weaknesses as dark spots on our personalities that are best left hidden. Here is my model on how to look at yourself – and others – which is both forgiving and useful.

Growing up, I believed old age automagically infused us with wisdom. In my teens, my mother started working at a retirement centre for retired tearaways (Swedish: pensionerade värstingar). Ah, the stories! I learnt we behave in all sorts of ways as we grow older, which can be both troublesome and filled with dark sense of humor. Even though we do change, the bigger problem in my view is that we don’t give much thought about how we can improve our strengths and weaknesses – our ”pluses and minuses.” We run around blindly and end up in situations with a vague understanding of both ourselves and what a new job might need. There are ways to grow your self. You don’t have to wait until the years have passed.

We have strengths and weaknesses. Understand and handle them both. Remember to place them in the right context for best result.

We have strengths and weaknesses. Understand and handle them both. Remember to place them in the right context for best result.

We tend to view our personalities as fixed with limited ability to change. I argue that we cannot avoid evolving. Our only option is to understand and try to improve both the pluses and minuses. Moreover, and maybe more important, we need to find a context where this matter. You might be awesome, but if nobody cares, it doesn’t matter how good you are.

The Pluses

On many occasions, I have helped people recognising their strengths. As a consultant manager, I typically analysed my team member’s CVs to improve their sales pitch. I would look for the short list of ”what I sell” on their first page. As an exercise, I would ask them for the three to five keywords that defined their strengths as seen from a potential customer.

It turns out, it is difficult to name those strong sides that we do own. We have never received any training, and we don’t dare to ask around. I do recommend the latter though. You are probably going to be positively surprised when you ask some trusted colleagues.

Exercise 1: Talk to a couple of close colleagues. Ask them for your ”top three strengths. Check your CV: Can you find them on the first page?”

The guys in my teams (yup, usually all-male teams) could think of several good words. That’s not hard, but picking just the few that describes you is a lot more difficult. In my experience, only a (very) few arrived at two keywords.

Exercise 2: Form your own top 3-5 words that define ”what you bring to the table”. Show them to a different colleague and get their feedback. Probably you need to redo your CV.

Have you tried the exercises above? Good. By now you should have a small(er) set of value words that feel good and sharpens your professional edge. You understand your core strengths better. Moreover, you have solicited the help of others. Being out of your comfort zone didn’t feel too bad, did it?

At this point, it could be tempting to compare your strengths to people you know and respect. Chances are some of your pluses pale in comparison. Try to resist that urge. Remember this is about you and how to make you the best you. There are always people more intelligent, more beautiful and more friendly than you (and me). I say: Let them buy the next round of drinks and be content with that level of revenge.

It is not only the level of your strengths that are important. The combination of different positives makes you unique. Say you’re a decent programmer, an adequate team lead, a modest speaker, and you listen to your colleagues. None of the skills are excellent by themselves, but the combination of them makes you outstanding.

The Minuses

You have spent thousands of hours honing your core skills. Adding another day’s worth of sweat will not break new grounds or up your levels. You should still do it, but it’s continuous investment so these fortitudes do not slip.

Weaknesses are usually best left forgotten. Right? Wrong. Since these are flaws, you don’t like to parade them. Chances are you haven’t spent much time on them at all. Adding just a couple of hours ’upgrading’ should have a dramatic upswing. The more you suck, the better the effect!

Exercise 3: Ask the near and dear for their advice. What should you improve? Arrange the minuses from small to tough-to-fix. Take the easiest and just do something, whatever, to alleviate it. Rejoice! And repeat.

I’ve talked a lot with my family about this aspect of improving weaknesses. Recently my 13-year old son Bix coined the ”10 hour rule”. He had figured out the actual number to rectify a ‘light’1 flaw.

  • If you spend ten hours, then it will make you better. A single hour doesn’t help, he assured me. So I watch ten hours of YouTube, he continued.

True that. Thanks Bix.

My second son Felix told me that he got beat in chess in 7th grade. His number to get even was 20 hours of chess intros on Youtube. After binge-watching, he went back to school and beat everyone including those two years his senior. Oh, and that includes humiliating me.

Exercise 4: Find a ’good’ weakness. Practice or learn about it for ten hours – not just a single hour. You now officially suck less.

Find the one or two most ’easy’ minuses that you can improve. Think of the smallest step you can take to address them. Can you make that change rewarding? Now you’re on an active path to a better version of yourself. Keep going.

I view weaknesses in a different light than most. I don’t like them at all, but improving them is gratifying and usually cheap.

The context

By now, you should have some kind of understanding of your strengths. You view and handle your weaknesses in a better way. The next step is critical to get the most out of you.
You need to find the context – job or whatever – that is the better fit for you. When you thrive, your company (or marriage or child or…) will benefit. We tend to forget this vital part when we only look inward and examine our abilities.

A colleague of mine was not highly regarded by management. She was typically sent on single person assignments which weren’t sought after by the other programmers. Management didn’t think bad of her. She just was “medium” in their eyes. Always cheerful, she would toil away and not complain much. As chance sometime does, she was put on an in-house project for one of our big customers. After a while, the other programmers would go over to her desk for help or clarification. She had become the goto-person, and even the customer noticed. For the next project, they specifically asked for her. Both she, the project and her bank account were happy.

Exercise 5: Take your plus and minuses. Map them to your context – job, marriage whatever. What does (not) match? Start improving your context, one facet at a time. If all fails, you might have to switch context.

Let us take a more far-reaching example. Many years ago, I noticed that some of my fellow programmers displayed a combination of traits that I found intriguing. They were bad at spelling and at the same time had an intuitive knack for coding. Their solutions seemed to come from some lateral thinking that slipped me by. It turned out they were dyslexic. Why this odd combination?

I hypothesised that they had to use other types of problem-solving for reading and writing. I believed this somehow affected their thinking when coding. More than a dozen years later, I found a doctoral dissertation where they performed intelligence test on dyslexic youths2. The levels for reading and writing were below average, as expected. But, to my joy, the study found the equivalent or higher ability for problem-solving!

Could it be that my dyslexic colleagues, by chance or choice, had chosen a field where spelling matters less? Remember, a programmer usually writes two characters and hits cmd-space to select a word from the menu. Given the context of the code, the choices are few and easy.

Whenever I find that a programmer has consistent spelling errors, I err on the positive side. I expect to see more creative solutions.

Finally; I used the word forgiving at the start. I subscribe to ’growth mindset’3, as opposed to a fixed mindset (your abilities are there from birth and do not change). I believe that it is possible to improve yourself. We all have flaws. We only need to decide to try do something about them. It might not be easy, but it does work.

  1. Obviously this 10-hour rule just doesn’t work for some bigger weaknesses. Choose wisely among the lighter ones. Check out Mike Boyd’s “Learn Quick” https://www.youtube.com/user/microboyd
  2. Ingesson, S. G. (2007). Growing up with Dyslexia: Cognitive and Psychosocial Impact, and Salutogenic Factors. Department of Psychology, Lund University, Sweden, 2007https://www.spsm.se/globalassets/funktionsnedsattning/avhandlingar/growing-up-with-dyslexia-ingesson-gunnel.pdf
  3. Basically, we can change. See Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset: https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve?language=sv

Add K and Stir

September 23, 2017

In my last blog, I introduced KFika – the smallest way to start sharing Knowledge. And fika1 we have to do anyway. Right? Adding a K to just about any word is a recipe to invent your events. So simple it’s somewhat embarrassing.

Food and knowledge sharing - it just can't go wrong.

Food and knowledge sharing – it just can’t go wrong.

Possibilities are silent, whereas problems scream and cling to your legs. Obviously the latter is impossible to miss. But how to find the former?

A simple technique2 to find those nuggets of insight is to combine two different words. What ideas pop into your head? Let the first trigger another thought and then yet another.

When analysing those ideas, I recommend two distinct phases. At first look at the upsides of each idea – no matter how far-fetched they might seem at first. We need to explore them properly. Treat them with a modicum of respect – at least in this initial phase. One idea tends to lead to the next one, which might be the perfect one.

In the second phase, you sober up and do the regular shot-them-down-thinking. This critical thinking, which is much heralded, has one major flaw. It takes a creative schmuck who is dumb enough to propose those new ideas in the first place. Hence the reason for this two-phased approach.

We’re likely to miss out on much of the follow-up ideas that might stand up to scrutiny. Or perhaps we find something that will “only” improve our current way of working, which is quite good when you think about it.

General Recipe for Finding Possibilities:

  1. Combine two (very) different words and see what ideas turn up.
  2. Positive phase: Analyse by starting every sentence with “yes, and we could…” We need to find all possible ideas and whatever thought they might trigger.
  3. Critical phase: Analyse why it might not work and what parts could improve the current way of thinking or working.
  4. Experiment and learn.

My simple formula to find a new type of knowledge event is to add “K” (as in kompetens3 or knowledge) to just about any word. What might this mean? How would that be of use? KFika is such a word. Another might be KLunch.

You might know this by the term “brown-bagging.” In short, you make sure there are sandwiches (typically in a brown bag) for everyone and someone who will share knowledge.

The lunch version does cost a bit more than a regular fika – both money-wise and time-wise for the person speaking. She or he needs to prepare.

I propose you address the second drawback first. Find a subject that with your company’s agenda, then it will be a lot easier to find a sponsor like your boss or HR. If you fail, then go for it anyway. An interesting subject will attract people anyway. Chances are you will be shaming the company into footing the bill 🙂

How do you find the subject and speaker? Talk to whoever you meet at the coffee machine. Has anyone done something worthwhile spreading on their project? I believe I can guarantee it. Ask about their work. What acronyms can you find? What did they enjoy? What was hard? It doesn’t take long to notice their passion points. Finally, go for the kill; Ask for them to share that knowledge. Since they already struggled to gain that particular experience, there isn’t much work to package and share.

The K Recipe:

  1. Combine the word “Knowledge” and some other word.
  2. What kind of experiment or event4 does this trigger?
  3. Look for people with passion points. Ask them to share it in whatever form makes them comfortable.
  4. Set a date, book a room and some food. Spread the word.
  5. Repeat. By third time this will be a tradition and easier to do.

At one company where I worked, we had significant recurring events with lots of lectures and labs. Nearly everyone shared their knowledge. The walls are still ingrained with this thinking. I’d like to believe that was one of the reasons why we didn’t have a proper HR department. Pay attention to people and ask them to share their knowledge. It is a powerful recipe for happy colleagues.

So add K to whatever and brain-storm what it could mean. Enjoy!

—-

  1. Fika is the Swedish “afternoon tea”. Except it is typically coffee and a bun, both before and after lunch.
  2. I might be fumbling Edward de Bono lateral thinking somewhat. So go for the source if you can: https://www.edwdebono.com/lateral-thinking
  3. Kompetens is my word for the notion of systematic and sustained effort of boosting your competencies. It just happens to be Swedish for Competence. 🙂
  4. Yes, you could use any word here. In preparation for long-haul flight with my colleagues, I combined K and in-flight magazine. The result was a pack of programming articles and a Java crossword that I constructed. I still remember the captain’s word of over the speaker system as we taxied out to the airstrip. ”Can all the passenger sit down.” I did manage to hand out the puzzle 🙂

Reuse that problem

August 31, 2017

If learning is difficult given the little time we have, then teaching is even harder to do. Right? Thankfully there are simple ways to get going. Reuse the problem you had to solve during office hours.

Learning comes in many shapes and forms. One of them is teaching. After all, giving even a mere introduction forces you to go deeper into the subject. If you don’t, you will neither understand the area properly or be able to answer any follow-up questions. Now, that could be embarrassing. Luckily, there is a way to get around both the problem of lack of time and the need for deep insight.

Sooner or later you will run into problems that no oh-google-save-my-job search will solve. Those type of obstacles are possibilities in disguise if handled well.

Many hours later you found a way to solve it and feel good about yourself for at least five minutes. Most people then go on to the next problem, not picking up the possibility in front of your fingers. Remember, you found a hole on the internet? However small or niched problem it was still something that no one had solved and documented. You can be that person.

This insight is the big leap of mind. Writing half a blog is dead easy once you have put in the hours of sweat. If you can’t do it while still at work, do it that evening while you still remember it. It will not take that much time and eventually someone else will find that text and thank you for it.

That wasn’t too hard right? Imagine doing a few more times a year, and suddenly you will have a list of texts that both shares your knowledge and establishes your command of the subject. In my book, it carries a lot more weight than a line in the LinkedIn profile.

A colleague of mine used this approach at the big customer where he worked. We were both consultants so sharing knowledge mattered more than “just” the joy of it. After a while, he heard that other departments were discussing his insights during their monthly meetings. It goes without saying that he was quite happy when hearing this. All the while he was being paid for doing it and delivering better value as a consultant.

KFika – the smallest start to learning with coffee & bun

August 28, 2017

Having time to learn is vital. Estimates show that some areas need the fifth working day just to keep up. Real tough. Let’s turn to the time honored practice of fika to get started. 15 minutes of coffee and something small.

As we discovered in my previous blog, some people in the know estimate that we half of our knowledge loses its value in less than five years. For people within software engineering, it is even less than that. That is of course if we remember the half that still holds some value.
How on earth can we find time to learn? We are trapped between the half-life of knowledge and a deadline. There is always something to ship. Answer: start small.

For my part, I love to sit down with a cortado and a cinnamon bun. I’m not alone in this respect. In Swedish, there is even a word for it, fika. You can find groups of people having good strong coffee in Swedish offices. They will gather a couple of hours both before and after lunch.

So you have a group of colleagues meeting every day. All you need to do is pick a day of the week and let people know that you’re going to share knowledge (K). At the same time, you let them know that you are bringing cinnamon buns. They can’t refuse that. The receipt you put on expenses1. It is dirt cheap knowledge sharing.

We shouldn’t let the fika be free form. That can be tough to maintain over time. Given the short event and the particular format, I recommend going for low ambition. Don’t use slides or anything similar that takes preparations. Use the sit-down around a table to your advantage. Good choices are subjects like project management, principles of good programming, or similar. Anything that benefits from bringing real world experience to the table will work fine.

Or you could read a book, one chapter per week, and discuss that. Another way can be a round-robin where each participant would share something they learned in the previous week. This approach will take some more effort from you but is well worth it. You will cover lots of more ground. Nuggets of premium knowledge and serendipitous insights are bound to happen. If you want to start even smaller share something that your team has accomplished lately. It doesn’t have to be grand. Just get going with fika.

Final thought, don’t choose Friday afternoons. Everyone’s mind is on the coming weekend.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fika_(Sweden)

An Ex To-be

August 25, 2017

I graduated from Computer Science in my mid-twenties. As a 35-year-old programmer I was already a senior. Hitting forty I was a has-been in waiting, an ex to-be1. At fifty plus nobody believes I can program anymore. My conclusion; straight out from school we got to learn again …and again. But it’s not doom and gloom — on the contrary.

If it was possible to create a diagram of the competence over a life span, it would look something like this:

Figure: The life’s competence curve. Yellow curve: We go through education, work hard and then wait to die. Red curve: You’re promoted. Ouch.

Time is on the horisontal axis and vertical is the level of proficiency we master in our day to day job. The yellow line is the competence curve of the old good days. You spent a quarter of a century in education2 and then used that knowledge for the rest of your professional life. After that – from a professional competence point of view – you wait to die.3

Suddenly, one day you’re promoted. It could be that you’re called on the lead the team or department. There is one major problem though. You haven’t taken a single course in “Management 101” or “Leading by example”. Let alone regulations, benefits of diversity or …well, you see the problem. As you can imagine, your competence curves takes a major hit. After all, you spent all those years learning how to build bridges and whatnot.

Except this curve is not true any more. We don’t get to spend 40 years honing our skill set (or just one single role transition as described above).

Thomas Jones, an American professor at MIT, tried to estimate the “half-life” of an engineer. Or more correctly, he described the time it takes for half of your knowledge to be out of date and in dire need of an update4. He arrived at the figure of ten years. But yet, his estimate stems from 1966… Today some believe this knowledge decomposition to be less than five years. A software engineer comes in even lower — below three years5. This is all the more jarring since it usually takes half a decade for studies at university.

Principles of career

The Peter Principle6 states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. They stay at this level that they cannot handle. He argues that we promote people on the basis of their performance in their current role, not the new one. This applies to us all. Whatever worked before, we will try again until we no longer can perform adequately for a given higher position. This is when our careers stop. This does sound bad, but it still was the “golden” days of working. At least we hade some time to prepare for that new level of responsibility.

Enter the Dilbert Principle7. The cartoonist and author Scott Adams believes that corporations tend to promote the least competent people to management. The intent would be a way of minimising the damage that they might inflict on the organisation. It is a good dark joke, but with a grain of truth to it. A friend of mine described how she and a group of friends decided to start a company directly after graduation. They went around the table and dispensed the responsibilities. At the end they still had one role to fill and no takers.
– Oh, I can be the CEO then! If no one else wants it, she exclaimed.

We have entered an age where not even prior experience is needed. This of course has its upsides, opportunities come quicker than ever before. But still, it can be hurtful to learn on the job with real people as guinea pigs. My friend? She worked for five years as the CEO making the company grow. She learnt a lot.

The linear progression that was the norm during the Peter era, is now more akin to jumping stones. Back and forth, it can be hard to make out a pattern on certain people’s CV’s, but it usually is there. It could be a wish to change the world somehow somewhere. Or that you follow your friends as you evolve through different companies. The more extreme will end up with roles as plentiful as badges on a scout’s uniform.

Where does this leaves us?

Our knowledge that we built up in school will deteriorate — no matter what. We shift roles a lot more during our career.

We need, and are being forced, to make this the new default. Life long learning is a must. Schools must teach the art of learning — not just the various subjects. Organisations must search for new career paths that allows us to try out different roles. It can be done in a more safe way than the current drive-by-appoint-and-forget our new managers. Why not “CEO for a week” apprentice? Or “Undercover Janitor”?

Most importantly we need to incorporate learning as an ever ongoing — and fun — part of our jobs. It has to be a joy to evolve, otherwise we can’t keep doing it. It will just be too hard.

Thomas Jones also estimated how much time we need to invest to keep up. Over an engineer’s professional life span (s)he would need the equal of two extra engineer degrees beyond graduation8. That’s a lot and hard to comprehend. Translated into a work week, you would need to spend around half a day. Let us adjust to present half-life and to software engineering. We are looking at a day’s worth of learning — each working week of the year. Tough, but also some serious fun in my eyes.

That much learning on the job is tough to come by. Chances are that you toil away in a company that is not ready or willing to spend that much “not working”. I’ll dive deeper into what you can do about this in future blogs.

All doom and gloom for the “old”?

At the start of this blog I was a bit harsh about the life expectance of old developers. Are we obsolete by the time of 45? Absolutely not!

A survey looked into the effectiveness of different generations9. Turns out that the older generation (40-50 year olds) came in slightly better than the youngest generation (20-30) by a couple of per cent. The biggest differentiator was the ability to avoid making serious mistakes. So keep learning, keep harnessing those experiences. It will make you better as we all grow older.

  1. Swedish: blivande f.d.
  2. Assuming university level studies and, yup, I am counting parents as well.
  3. My apologies for being rude in making my point, of course old people learn 😉
  4. “Technical Obsolescence”, IEEE Spectrum http://xplqa30.ieee.org/xpl/tocresult.jsp?isnumber=5216873
  5. “Lifelong Learning for Engineers: Riding the Whirlwind”, National Academy of Engineering https://www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/LearningforEngineers/LifelongLearningforEngineersRidingtheWhirlwind.aspx
  6. The Peter Principle of promotion, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle
  7. The Dilbert Principle, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilbert_principle
  8. “An Engineering Career: Only a Young Person’s Game?”, IEEE Spectrum http://spectrum.ieee.org/riskfactor/computing/it/an-engineering-career-only-a-young-persons-game
  9. Darn, I know I have that article somewhere!While I’m looking, please enjoy “A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond”, NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/a-sharper-mind-middle-age-and-beyond.html

’98 and the Spreadsheet

December 14, 2016

Back in 1998 I received a spreadsheet from the Human Resource department (HR). We were to register our competencies. But, information technology is a vast area full of acronyms, so the text was way small to fit them all in a single page.

Some IT Skills entered into an Excel Spreadsheet.

Some IT Skills entered into an Excel Spreadsheet.

Figure: We had to fill out a out a spreadsheet from the HR department. No matter how good you were, chances are you will end up like me – with lots of empty cells.

Look at the image above, which is my own example. What can you see? Don’t worry about the small print. There is no need to read to be able too see what I felt.

I just didn’t know much!

Since there are so much to know within IT, I ended up with lots of empty cells. I could only draw one conclusion from all that white empty space. I knew almost nothing.

The whole effort ended up focusing on our weaknesses, even though they meant to find our strengths. The spreadsheet turned out to be a pathogenic model. My weaknesses were all too apparent.

Note, the HR department did not intend to put me down. They just didn’t consider the underlying message when they chose a spreadsheet as a tool to gather the data.

Resource!

What is it with the word “resource” that annoys me so? The term as such was invented in 18931. Even though it ‘celebrates’ some 120 years, that does not automatically make it wrong. The problem is that it promotes the idea of people as commodities. We are interchangeable parts in a big machine.

In a counter reaction to this, you can find “talent management” which is fine and all. In my eyes though, this is trying too hard. We are seeking to compensate for “resource” and other bad language like “human capital.” Why not keep it simple? Use words like people or colleagues.

Maybe you argue, that it is just a simple meta-construct, a layer of indirection, to refer to a bunch of things? There is power in words, and they go hand in hand with your thoughts. And if you think of people as resources, then you are likely to end up treating them as …things.

That spreadsheet bugged me a lot. I decided to go rogue. Between other projects, I created a system focused on people’s strengths – a salutogenic solution.

KKarta was my first competence development system. You can see the  competencies (skills) I have selected organized into categories.

KKarta was my first competence development system. You can see the competencies (skills) I have selected organized into categories.

Figure: KKarta was my first competence development system. You can see the competencies (skills) I have selected and their categories.

I hacked away and created a website where my colleagues and I could enter the list of skills we possessed. It was a simple change. Out of all possible skills, only the ones that applied to the person were visible.

After running the website locally in Malmö, a person from HQ passed by and noticed what we had done. I didn’t think much about it, but she was a member of management, and within short, the tool covered some 600 employees in 5 countries.

For the first time, we could figure out who knew what without walking the corridors. We could get to know each other across offices and borders. KKarta started to take on a life of its own and people begun to use it in ways I never imagined. Procurement figured out how many developers could have a use for Visual Studio which helped in negotiations with Microsoft. New employees printed the photo catalog as a “who’s who”.

In the end, I connected the system to our time reporting. Now I understood where we spent our hours working – which branch and technology were our forte.

What happened then?

In the end, I got a message from the HQ. Remember, back in the day of dot-com revolution, buying and merging companies was the norm. I forgot how many times this happened. I kept the same desk, but HQ was new.

“This is too important for us to handle ourselves. So we bought a solution from X instead.”

I got the news as an after thought via email from someone I did not know. My dear system was no longer. I was sad and out of the loop.

X was not a bad solution, they just did not focus the people. It was a system to match up the employees’ lack of a certain knowledge with the appropriate course. As such, we were back to book keeping.

HR,  err talent management, cannot be about what we lack. It should be about the individuals – our strengths and our wishes! Line these up with the company’s needs and you got a great driving force.

At the time of this writing, I am doing my fifth competence development system.  But that is another story.

Oh, X folded a year later. I guess they did not make enough money selling courses after all. 😉

Key take-away

Focus on people’s strengths – not their weaknesses. The latter is great to understand, but cannot be the focus.

What follows is that you have to act accordingly. But that is for another blog, another day.

  1. John R. Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_R._Commons