January 27, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

I’m sure it happens in any industry, yet it never ceases to amaze me. Once someone gets a bit of prominence, once they have discovered the secret handshake, many people will stop questioning what comes out of their mouth (or fingertips if online), and take their missives as gospel. Crazy, but true, and costly in the technology field.

There is an old adage that if you give someone an airline ticket and get them to write a book, they have instant credibility. I saw this 10 years ago as I sat in a class where Steve McConnell was running an estimation course. Some of the students had that same starry-eyed look as the girls in the front row of class in the first Indiana Jones movie (though I don’t know if anything was written on their eyelids. Steve could have probably stated that the sky was green that day, and some would have quickly written that down rather than look out the window to check for themselves.

I’ve experienced it myself. A few years back, I was visiting the PMO of a prominent hospitality chain to work on their estimation techniques (despite the two examples, this is certainly not limited to the topic of estimation). The group was a bit standoffish at first, leaving me in their ‘war room’ to fend for myself (and check out the 6 month old Gantt charts on the walls) for about 20 minutes. They then came into the room and we exchanged introductions and business cards. As soon as they saw my PMP designation (which I don’t even put on my business cards these days, but that is another story), it was as though anything I said came from stone tablets. They were all PMPs and MBAs, and it seemed that there was a minimum benchmark to reach before I could add value.

Conferences are heading in that direction as well. Keynote addresses are becoming edutainment, with more emphasis on the latter part than the former. I’ve found that most keynotes, particularly the ones that stick to the conference party line, tend to say nothing new, and form a nice background buzz while I go through the rest of the program to determine which plenary sessions I’m interested in. Unfortunately, with the impression that almost any talk will draw more when ‘agile’ is included in the title, this phenomenon is even stronger – and the talk is all about preaching to the converted.

Prominence in the industry gives some expectation that there has been some level of peer evaluation and validation, and to some point this is indeed the case. The problem is that this leads many to the assumption that this prominence is an indication of being better or more right, not always the case. Even worse is the situation where the very people that have gained prominence delude themselves into this way of thinking. Fortunately, this is not always the case: for every arrogant ‘thought leader’ screaming from the pulpit, there are many more Jerry Weinbergs or Steve McConnells or Alistair Cockburns that recognize they are still people like the rest of us.

We all need to recognize that, for the most part, people are prominent because they have managed to get their ideas out to the masses, which is often a function of diligence and hard work more often than being more insightful than those masses. For most, there is no change in that person, and they remain as fallible as anyone. Yes, I’ve written a book, but the ideas contained in those pages came to me long before, and I still put my shoes on one at a time.

Rather than seeking insights only from those prominent few voices in the industry, we might be better off looking at our neighbours in conferences as well, and even recognize that our own perspectives have merit worth considering. We need to move away from listen to the rants from the stage and enter into a true, appreciative dialogue. Judge everyone’s perspective with the same scrutiny: there is often over-appreciated talent on the stage, and always under-appreciated talent in any crowd. – JB


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