Reflections, part II

hingo's picture

On New Years Eve I wrote some random reflections about life and business. This is a followup with more thoughts I've remembered since I wrote that.


Obviously in personal life, but also in business, I've found that my integrity - and a reputation of having integrity - is the most valuable capital I have.

I've even resigned a job to avoid a situation where my role would have included making public statements that turned out to be misleading. While it was a risk, in hindsight it was 100% worth it.

It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission

This is a great saying that conveys the thought that sometimes it's better to just get the job done, and not get stuck debating details with a lot of bureacrats standing in your way. It requires some judgement of course, and you must be prepared to take 100% responsibility of whatever it is you are about to do. Still, in most cases people will agree that it's the results that count and won't yell at you too much afterwards, if all is well.

During the rocky MySQL years (related to Oracle acquisition and everything it triggered) this was a good motto to live by, and in hindsight I've been quite happy about how things turned out in the MySQL community. But maybe I got a bit too much of it. So in my current and previous jobs I've actually made a commitment to not rock the boat too much and rather ask for permission than forgiveness. Honestly I hate every day that goes by living like that. But I wanted to try and see what it's like. Probably in my next job I'll try a different style again - we'll see.

To break the rules you first have to know the rules

Wise words from a Nokia VP I worked under. It goes together with the previous motto. Roughly this means that if you know what you're supposed to do, and you make a judgement call to do something exceptional, that's possibly fine (in Scandinavian business culture, at least). If you just ignore the rules up front, and don't even bother to know how the system works, then you're just an idiot.

I fully agree.

Authority comes top down

In Finnish business culture there is a common saying: "Responsility is not given, it is taken".

This comes from leadership training in the Finnish military and embodies the WWII spirit of the Finnish army that encourages every soldier to think with their own brains and raise to the occasion and act as individuals rather than blindly following whatever the generals may have told them to do.

While I agree with the sentiment, and the previous "better to ask forgiveness" motto embodies that, I also disagree and often have disagreed with this motto that is often recited out loud by Finnish managers. Clearly it is the case that both in military and in business, authority and responsibility is given, and must be clearly communicated, top down.

I've personally been in situations where I was expected to accomplish something, but only based on a 1-on-1 conversation between myself and some executive. It always leads to problems. I don't get the help from the rest of the organization that I need for the task and it leads to "who the hell does he think he is" and "why are you doing something that isn't your job" type of sentiments.

When I was young and happened to be experience such a situation right then, tasked by an executive that had indeed recited the motto from Finnish military. So one day I was sitting in a business management training. The first slide had this motto: "Authority comes top down" (and must be communicated clearly). That makes much more sense! ...I immediately said to myself, and have believed that ever since.

In short, the "responsibility is not given" motto is a good motto for a foot soldier or an individual employee. However it is the wrong motto to live by for an officer or a manager: his very job is to allocate responsibilities and be explicit about it.

In judging you, people are limited by their own understanding

Also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, this motto states that an incompetent person will generally underestimate his incompetence in a given field.

This also applies to managers. Suppose that in a team one employee is super-competent and another is below average. Now, if the manager himself is also not very competent, it happens that he will fail to see that one of his employees is competent. Instead he will think that they are all three more or less equally competent.

This is why engineers often prefer managers who themselves have a technical background, preferably equally strong technical background as the engineer himself, even if such managers may for example have less social skills than the average person.

When this is not the case, it means the manager first of all cannot cannot give guidance to the work being done, but of course he will himself fail to acknowledge this so this will not stop him from giving guidance. Second, it means the manager will not be qualified to give responsibility nor rewards to the right employees either.

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Susan Bowers's picture

Very true. We often face the

Very true. We often face the situation where someone less knowledgeable have the power to judge those with more expertise. and this is something not fair and acceptable.

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