What’s Your Fiction?

We all have stories we tell ourselves and about ourselves, but are they all true? I’ve worked at a good few places in my time, and most of them have ways of talking about themselves — to themselves and others — that may or may not be as true as they really ought to be.

Granted, some fictions are less problematic than others. For instance, everyone says, “we only hire the best and the brightest!” But of course that is simply not possible, because at the end of the day, there are only so many of the best and the brightest, and they almost certainly do not work at one place together (they’d probably throttle each other if they did!). And besides that, by what measure are we determining “the best and the brightest”? From what I’ve seen, all places have a good mix of individuals at varying levels of talent, skills, knowledge, and experience, and most if not all places are willing to make compromises from their ideals to find someone who is good enough.

But that’s a pretty harmless fiction, both because everybody says it (so nobody really believes it), and because at the end of the day, like I said, you’re always gonna find a mix of people at any given company — and the bigger the company is, the bigger the mix will be. It doesn’t have much practical impact one way or another.

On the other hand, there can be harmful fictions. For instance, “we’re Agile.” But are you really? Or are you just paying that word lip service? This can be damaging because, well, words have meaning and conceptually big words have practical big impact. Setting such false expectations for your people creates unnecessary friction between individuals and teams and adds stress to already highly demanding jobs.

Another example of potentially harmful might be “we don’t need to follow best practices because we’re smart/experienced/special.” It’s true that so-called best practices often get abused and misapplied, but, on the whole, best practices emerge from lots of.. practice, by lots of people in lots of contexts. Most likely, if something has come to be considered a best practice in the industry, it has been proven to work in contexts like yours, with people like yours — yes, smart, experienced people. It’s more likely that you should be following a best practice than not, and you should only not do so for very good, practical (that is, not ideological/preferential) reasons.

We can also tell fictions about ourselves that are harmful. For instance, “I’m smart, so I don’t need to work hard or be disciplined.” There is surely some truth in that if you have natural smarts/talent, things do come easier to you, but that’s not a good reason to be lazy. To put it another way, yeah, maybe you could do “good enough” without showing up, but just imagine what you could do if you really gave it your all.

I think it’s a good practice to regularly reflect and introspect about this. What potentially harmful fictions are you telling yourself? What fictions does your company/team tell? Maybe it’s time to either change the story or change the reality to match!

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