Monday, February 22, 2010

Really, It Depends

I'm filling out a self assessment form for my Organizational Design class. The form asks questions with two possible answers and asks you to "score" the two answers by assigning them a number such that the two responses add up to five. You're supposed to give the higher number to the choice you prefer.

So if the question is
Which do you prefer?
Vanilla 1
Chocolate 4

You are clearly all about the chocolate. I think this questionnaire is supposed to tell you how comfortable you are with change (since this weeks reading was all about being a change agent, and it asks questions like "It is harder to adjust to 1) Standard Procedures 2) Frequent Changes.")

I noticed a few things while filling out this questionnaire. As background, part of what I do for a living is implement new software-and I love doing it-but at the same time I can sympathize with the users' frustration when they discover that whatever new system I've just imposed on them isn't as comfortable as the old one. All of this is to say I've done a decent amount of thinking about change. In fact, part of *why* I do what I do for a living is that change is scary and one of the best ways to deal with scary things is to gain some measure of control over them.

This brings me to the main point of what is missing from this questionnaire about change. One of the most important indicators of whether or not any given person is going to be comfortable with change is how much control they have over the situation. I am much more comfortable with a change that I have helped shape than with one that is imposed on me from above and I bet I'm not the only one who feels that way. It's true that I cause changes to happen for a living, so perhaps my perspective is a little different than that of most people. But with the exception of the hard core, heels in the mud "No change is acceptable at all" position, it seems to me that most people are more receptive to change they helped design and that ultimately, people's preference for their own ideas is much more important than how they feel about change.

Less important, but also interesting to me was that context matters. For example, one of the questions asked whether I preferred people who were visionaries to people who were hard-nosed realists. Another (really the starting point for this blog post) asked if I preferred people with vivid imaginations or people with good common sense. Now I realize that this questionnaire is from a textbook for an MBA program, so there is an implication that when it asks about your preferences for people it means coworkers-not friends. But the answer I'd give to that one question is widely different in the personal realm than it is in the professional realm. I want my friends to be creative. And so long as I don't have to split the electric bill with them, I mostly don't care how practical they are. NB-This is not to say that I want my friends to be impractical-it just means that I would prefer that they had good imaginations (and in fact, if you examine my friends you will find a host of imaginative humans-many of them with the letters MFA after their names.)

What I'd want in a business partner is not what I'd want in a friend. In a business partner (or, even just a coworker) I'm much more interested in someone who is a member of the reality based community than someone who has five new business plans a week.

On another note, I have noticed positive changes in myself since I last filled out one of these silly questionnaires (A Myers Briggs assessment in 2008.) I am much less afraid of other people than I was at the time. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. For one, I no longer live with someone who tells me what a bad job I do talking to other people. For another, I have had to learn to stand on my own two feet professionally this past year and while I'm not crazy about the environment in which I work (although, as I have noted in other posts 1) I'm pretty sure that I have the respect of everyone but my boss-which is comforting and 2) it's really not such a bad place to work when the owners are absent.) Being accepted into the MBA program probably helped as well. But while I'm still nervous and shy, I'm not as afraid of other people any more. Which is a good thing-possibly the only good thing this annoying little questionnaire will do for me.

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