Saturday 29 June 2013

Maintaining your relevance at work. Three ideas to develop a healthy sense of paranoia.

I was in a meeting where I was evaluating the operational performance of a complex project. I started off by evaluating performance metrics. They looked reasonably satisfactory so I started asking a few questions on readiness in response to a potential negative event that could impact the project. The manager looked at me and mentioned that he felt I was being paranoid. I attempted to outline to the manager that my questioning though pessimistic in outlook was grounded in reality and ensuring that we did not fall into the trap of 'resting on our laurels'. Scenario building was a good way to keep ourselves sharp. The manager did not look convinced and stated that my approach was making him nervous about his ability despite the satisfactory performance metrics!
I was intrigued by the use of the term paranoid as a label to describe my behaviour, which I honestly felt reflected that I was a pragmatist and realist. I am aware that paranoia is a psychotic disorder and in simple terms is an “extreme, irrational distrust of others.” Being paranoid then is nothing more than a label to describe a person who is characterised by or suffering from the mental condition of paranoia. I sincerely hope that I am not paranoid to the degree outlined by the manager (i.e. requiring medication or remediation of my mental state) but I was convinced that some level of paranoia is useful in the work context.
For me paranoia (within reason of course!) can be a smart on-going survival mechanism in the work-place. Rather than be worried or disappointed by this label I became enamoured by it. I then recalled Andrew Grove (ex-CEO of Intel) who in his 1997 book ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’ outlined that "Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive." The book had been an eye-opener for me very early in my career and contributed to a certain mannerism in me that ensured dynamism and an on-going healthy belief that I (and others) can do better.
There were aspects of Andrew’s insight and my own perspective on paranoia that I wanted share and outline in the form of three ideas to maintain a healthy dose of paranoia in how one engages in the work context and to maintain your relevance at work.

Idea # 1 – Do you keep Cassandras; detractors and non-believers near to you?
There is a need to maintain a healthy dose of realism in every action that you take. Ensure that success achieved is actually attributable to your direct effort. Many times I see people get excited about an achievement over which they had little control but still fall into the trap of over-assessing their capabilities. Be honest about yourself. If you cannot be honest then try to get some opinions from those who can act as a devil’s advocate and can help in ensuring that you do not end up ‘buying into your inflated assessment of your capability’.
Keep listening to non-believers and pragmatist’s not to stop the change but to determine how you will react to the change. Grove's following advice is meaningful – “The Cassandras in your organisation are a consistently helpful element in recognising strategic inflection points. As you might remember, Cassandra was the priestess who foretold the fall of Troy. Likewise there are people who are quick to recognize impending change and cry out an early warning."
Ignore them at your own peril.

Idea # 2 – Are you scanning your work-environment constantly?
If an organisation can miss the next big disruption in its environment then why can that not happen to you in your career at work. Are you scanning the environment; your colleagues and subjecting your relationship with your manager to honest scrutiny? Do you ignore the simple signs indicating that you are too settled in your ways at work? One simple way to understand this is to keep an eye on whether you are still able to get results using old techniques.
At age 27 I found myself staring at an exit from the organisation I worked as restructuring had rendered me 'useless'. My mentor at that point asked me to think about what had gone wrong. I realised that working 24x7 in my comfort zone had made me miss some critical signals. Those signals became evident only after I had started looking for another role! [For e.g. I realised that colleagues had been put onto other projects abruptly; a key customer was complaining about our product (the one that was core to my portfolio); management had been constantly talking about cost-cutting but I assumed that would affect others and not me.]

Idea # 3 – Are you reinventing yourself and challenging the status quo?
Keep reinventing yourself to ensure that you keep coming up with newer and more improved ways to problem solve otherwise stagnation waits. Just remember you have to work hard to maintain relevance. You have to work harder to ensure you remain indispensable.
Knowing that there are many people who would want my role has always kept me on the edge. I am surprised to see many people tell me that they are indispensable. You are only indispensable if you keep up with change. If you are not able to keep up with change then you are dispensable despite whatever you may believe. Adapt by changing your techniques; adopting new tools & thought processes; continous learning and taking on new roles and contributing to non-traditional projects.
Be aware that you cannot plan for all expected changes. If you could plan for change then it is not change you are planning for!
Your goal should be to plan on how to develop the resources and capabilities to cope, sustain and adapt with change. A common source of frustration for many is to assume that as you organise and reorganise such steps are permanent. They are not. The reality is that change is the only constant. Your ability to react to change is critical but even more critical is your ability to not fall in love with the status quo.

In closing, I wanted to share a simple notion from Kate White“Too often we ignore or rationalise certain incidents because they’re potentially distressing. We don’t like thinking that a co-worker could be undermining us or that or our company might be in turmoil. But though the truth is sometimes disruptive, it can also be empowering. The trick is to use it to galvanize you into action so that you’re in control and ahead of a potential problem. Paranoia really does have its positive side.”
What do you think?


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  1. Good One Deepak, Thank you for writing this. Last paragraph of Idea # 2 reminds me of my career, very similar.

    Subir Saha

  2. Hello Deepak and others,

    I like your 3 points and the way you see your own proper job as a centric point. Along my HP career 1979 to 2005 I had the chance to be exposed to many "lectures" from different managers of different levels and different fields.
    I had also the chance of hearing first hand from Bill and Dave, I had also the great experience to hear in the early 80's when Dave came back at his office for putting back in order with great principals in action the lost HQ corporate of the time.

    One of the more impressive presentation I had from a Division Manager that became later a Group manager was to say:
    " See me as a juggler. The issues or problems are the objects I have to keep alive in the air. The crowd is admiring my performance but at the same time challenging by adding more awkward objects to juggle with! I need to keep the show on. It may require to discard objects if I don't have the solution for them. My judgement must be fast, realistic and appropriate to the kinetics."
    If you think about the analogy, one can be of the best adaptive character and smashed under the discarded object, and an other one the worst adaptive but be part of a success story!
    There is always a today in style language and demonstration of the good attitude or excellence in behavior but life is not fare and luck is unfortunately a great chance or not for surviving.
    In a very impressive 60 minutes interview of Bill Hewlett around 80's. Bill conclusion at the question how did you succeed? I have to be humble and tell you we (Bill and Dave) were lucky to be the right men at the right time at the right place:-)
    One of the most missing part for me in the today HP is the diversity and the openness. HP is way bigger than the one I knew, with more different population of the world working for it, but the conformism and the narrowness of the ideas developed are pretty dramatic.
    Don't hear nostalgia in my post, corporations live and die through a lot of different stages and at different pace.
    Maybe HP can hope Meg Whitman will be a great juggler and better than: Carly, Mark and Leo!

    Best HP Way for those who can remember the meaning of it:-)


    1. Richard..thanks for your input...absolutely relevant and meaningful...