Hesitation and confidence

December 22, 2018

I remember 7-8 years ago, working with some older guys who were never quite sure of themselves; offhand, Keith, and Ram.

I used to think that was because they didn't know what they were doing. But the truth is, sometimes knowledge makes you more opinionated, other times, less.

More when things go like this:

  • We used the red paint last time and it didn't work, but the blue paint finally did it.
  • We used the red paint again because the team knew how to use it. It didn't work.
  • Here I am, on my third project, using red paint again. Why do I keep repeating this?

But usually it doesn't go that way. Usually it's more like:

  • We used the red paint on the first project, it didn't go well, but finally the blue paint worked.
  • We went with blue paint the second time around, but it didn't go on well, because the team didn't know how to apply it properly, so we went back to red for that job.
  • A guy I worked with recommended we go with green on the third project; it worked like a charm, but I doubt it would work without the special brushes he knew how to use.
  • We tried green on the fourth project and it was a disaster; we had to use the special gray paint, the only kind that would go onto such a rough surface without looking horrible.

If your experience is more like the multi-color story, something that I think is common (otherwise why would different colors even exist?), you realize how situationally-specific project leadership can get. Try as you might, it's always a guess, and there are so many things to consider.

You think about whether the team knows how to do it.

You consider whether the added cost is worth the expected better outcome.

You wonder whether it's better to stick with the less-than-optimal thing you've used for everything else, or try something new, that's more fit-to-purpose, but different than anything you've done before.

When confronted with that many things to consider—all at once—you go by intuition. Not some kind of mathematically-formulated, precise thing you can model in a spreadsheet. Though they can be useful for comparing, weighing, and making lists.

I think the lesson is that the most experienced people are often the quietest, because they've seen the most. You want them in the driver's seat on the key decisions. But if you aren't careful, they'll get sidelined by less experienced people, whose loudness and false confidence can lead teams astray.