Accidental credibility

It isn’t accidental at all. I just accidentally forget I have it. Sometimes I get reminded.

I don’t read work books. Never have. (I read a lot; not for work.)

It took Steve, my semi-boss, voracious consumer of all information media (he still listens to podcasts!), whose photo should be in StrengthsFinder 2.0 under “Learner”, nearly two years to persuade me to read Getting Naked, our company’s raison d’incorporation. I finished it in about two hours, and it changed my life. I still don’t read work books.

Especially lately, this has caused me some consternation and discomfort when I show up at a client site (or Microsoft TechEd) to train and consult on enterprise agility. There’s always some smarty-pants in the group who reads work books. I don’t mean they heckle; they’re perfectly kind. But those innocent questions that expose that I have heard of such-and-such seminal work and I obviously don’t know what’s in it? Awkward.

And so, for example, I showed up at my latest client site to help tackle their problems with ineffective agile retrospectives. I brought a ziploc bag of Sharpies (hard to find in Europe for some reason), a stack of sticky notes, and a naïvely cheerful attitude. Imagine my dismay to find that several of the thought leaders in the organization were carrying around a book called Agile Retrospectives and wanted to know my thoughts on it. Oops. I’m pretty sure Steve has been trying to get me to look at that one.

In the true spirit of Getting Naked, I swallowed my pride and asked to borrow my client’s copy of Agile Retrospectives, and I read it poolside at my hotel overnight. Quick read, incredibly valuable insights, did I mention I don’t read work books?

Interestingly, when I skimmed some of the exercises in the book, I noticed that I’ve done and used several of them without knowing their names. Simple stuff that I hadn’t thought of as “exercises”, like having everyone write down their thoughts first in order to make sure the quiet ones get heard. It’s likely I picked them up from managers and colleagues—many of whom were surely Learners—and added them to my toolbox over the years.

This afternoon, as I departed my client’s office, the owner of Agile Retrospectives stopped by to thank us for our time with them, and because he’s awesome, to share some feedback. I didn’t expect what he said.

“The developers on our team, when they heard a consultant was coming to train them on agile, they were expecting—well, it seems like anybody can read four books and say they’re a consultant. But the books don’t take real life into account, and the books make everything sound so easy.

“You’re different. You have fifteen years’ experience as a programmer, and it shows. They were really surprised. You created a lot of trust, because they know that you know what you’re talking about.”

Praise doesn’t get any higher than that. Here I was preoccupied with embarrassment that my clients—many of whom are in fact Learners—might be judging me because they’re so much better-read than I. In reality, what I have to offer is so second-nature to me that I sometimes forget everybody else doesn’t have it or know it already.

I’m not saying I don’t need to read a bit more. I clearly do. But I’m never going to be voracious with the work books, and I’m always going to encounter clients who naturally read work-circles around me. What I realize now is, neither one of those is a bad thing. I have skills and knowledge that clients need me for, and I need their skills and knowledge, too. Those motivated Learners will be the ones to help keep enterprise agility going long after their consultant has moved on!

Our complementary strengths are what makes us a great team. It’s what I teach to them. Let’s see if I can teach it to myself. :)


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