- Having or displaying a sense of overbearing self-worth or self-importance.
- Marked by or arising from a feeling or assumption of one’s superiority toward others: an arrogant contempt for the weak.
Thank you, dictionary.com.
“Do you know,” said Roy, “that eighty percent of people who’ve come into contact with Thoughtworkers think that we’re arrogant?”
“Really?” I asked. “How many Thoughtworkers think Thoughtworkers are arrogant?”
“About ninety percent,” he conceded.
We both agreed that this was odd, since TWers are amongst the least arrogant people I know. We are, in general, always interested in learning new things; ready to be told that there’s a better way than our own; never fooled into thinking that we know everything; open to critisism. So why do Thoughtworkers so often come across as arrogant?
As someone who gets mistakenly labelled as arrogant all the time, I’m obviously the best person to answer this question. So I have.
A sense of self-worth
There’s a difference between self-worth and self-importance. Self-importance is delusional; it suggests that the team, the project, the company or the world will fall apart without you. Perhaps that happens in an environment where knowledge is closely guarded, but most TWers love new things and hate to be stuck on the same project for months. I think we’re more likely to give away our knowledge; to ensure that someone else can take over our role, and to make ourselves as redundant as possible. I don’t think that we regard ourselves as important, or even want to be.
We do, however, have a sense of self-worth which is greater than that of your average IT bod. We know that our opinions matter, that we can make a difference, and that we all have responsibility for everything (thank you, Collective Code Ownership, management transparency and a flat hierarchical structure). We also know that this is true of everyone else in the company. That kind of mutual respect makes for a great place to work. The problem is that the enthusiasm generated by our environment often translates into “Look! Our world is so great! You should do this too!” (This is also the traditional TW greeting given to newcomers to the company, along with a garland of books and articles detailing the exact architecture required to build the better world.)
One of the problems with suggesting a better way is that it casts a reflection of something worse; something wrong. In most of the world, doing something wrong equates to a certain level of punishment, be it in lower salaries, stressful emails and memos from on high, rehabilitative courses or plain sacking. So until the world gets rid of the blame culture, there will always be people who aren’t prepared to be told that they’re wrong – especially if no one is interested in the stuff they’re doing right.
A feeling of superiority
Is our way really better? Which companies, exactly, are we superior to? Which projects?
There’s still a debate out there as to whether Agile is useful on, say, large-scale projects involving > 20 people or mission critical applications like aeroplane flight controls, and I have my own gut feelings about its practical application to legacy code.
How do you know, before you’ve listened, that a company might not be doing some things right already?
I’m pairing up to run the Agile induction course tomorrow and I’m very nervous about it. One of my colleagues here told me, “Don’t worry. Everyone started Agile somewhere; they worked out that there was a better way and played it by ear until they got it right.” And there are people playing around out there. Agile-like practices which I’ve seen outside of Agile projects include:
- test-first design (less disciplined than test-driven, but it still works)
- self-documenting code
- collaborative code ownership (a natural practice for any team disinclined to blame ?)
- feature-driven design (similar to story-driven design)
- a zero-overtime policy (at 37.5 hours, even better than the 40 hour week)
- stand-up meetings
- frequent code integration
I don’t think any of the companies I’ve seen doing these things are familiar with the concepts of Agile or Extreme Programming. They were just doing these things because they worked; because there were a few bright sparks running things who worked out how to prevent the problems they’d encountered on previous projects. The founders of the Agile movement went a little further, but they all started somewhere too.
I’d swear that one company I worked with has a secret Agile practitioner converting the way they work. “Wouldn’t it be better, instead of writing a method this way, to break it up into reusable chunks? Wouldn’t it be great if this variable was renamed so we knew what it meant? How about we inject this via an interface so we can put that functionality into a new class? What if we have low-level tests for our code, so we know if it fails before we send it off to our poor beleaguered test team? What happens if we integrate more regularly so that the merges become easier and don’t break everything quite so often?”
Thinking back on his approach, I am once again filled with real respect for this cunning rebel. He knew he was right – of course he was! – but he asked questions to make other people do the hard work of realising it; by which time, of course, they were right too. I never once heard him say, “Listen! Look!”, but I bet he sits back at his desk every day with the smuggest smile on his face.
Guess what? He doesn’t work for Thoughtworks. I really, really want to meet the people like this who do. Stop being the quiet voice, whoever you are.
Contempt for the weak
Ah. See, this is the problem; I don’t think it’s weakness we’re contemptuous of. I suspect it’s pragmatism.
Pragmatists are prepared to compromise their ideals in order to get a job done. Most Thoughtworkers are idealists, and worse; some of us are evangelists who are convinced that we can change the world. Here are three idealist thoughts on why people might practice pragmatism, particularly with respect to Agile evangelism:
- Not wanting to upset people by telling them that there’s a better way than theirs
- Pandering to a team’s inability to absorb a number of changes at once
- Denial of responsibility for the problems caused by poor procedure.
Or, as the pragmatist might phrase them:
- Consideration, and respect for the learning curve
- Recognition that not everyone shares the same ideals, and that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
From an extreme idealist’s point of view, failure to follow ideals is a weakness. If there’s some reason why an ideal can’t be met, then that needs changing too. What – too many changes at once? Courage! Courage! It’ll all work out in the end. Why can’t you trust us? Why can’t you see how right we are? Why won’t you bet your time, your career and your company’s money on us being so very, very right?
I’m a self-confessed idealist, so I find it hard to see things from a pragmatist’s point of view; but I’ve tried, and will probably write again about it in the future. One day I may even practice a little pragmatism myself. The point I’m trying to make is that pragmatism isn’t a weakness; it’s just a different way of approaching the problem. Idealists have a destination. We plot a crows-flight path and try to follow it as closely as possible (and the evangelist will try to drive everyone else that way too). Pragmatists just want to get there quickly. If there’s a traffic jam on the motorway then they’ll take the back roads; otherwise, the most proven route with the least effort wins out.
Idealists build new roads, and will one day invent the Personal Flying Vehicle to eliminate the necessity for new roads at all. Pragmatists widen the existing roads, and will one day comprise the majority of Personal Flying Vehicle customers.
Clay Shirky’s article on whether Wikipedia is a good thing (or the part which Carlos summarised nicely) gave me another of those beautiful moments of epiphany. There’s nothing wrong with radial or cartesian people; with pragmatists or idealists. The world needs both. Maybe it’s time for us idealists to start listening to the pragmatist’s point of view.
- the state of being humble and unimportant
- a humble feeling; “he was filled with humility at the sight of the Pope”
- a disposition to be humble; a lack of false pride
A common Thoughtworker expression, albeit paraphrased, is that each of us looks back on our work six months ago with astonishment for how poorly it was done – and correspondingly, though fewer mention it, a sense of accomplishment when we think of how far we’ve come.
Perhaps that’s the problem with my humility and that of other Thoughtworkers too. It always comes with a sense of glory. Every realisation that we’ve done something wrong comes as a result of learning a better way, and we love that feeling; not the humility, but the epiphany that accompanies it; the ‘Papal visit’ of Agile evangelism. Humbleness is there, I promise. If you ever want to see humility on a Thoughtworker’s face, just ask him, “What’s the most stupid thing you’ve ever done?” and watch his expression change as he mentally runs down the list.
We have no egos; at least, not ones that care about their appearance. Our sense of self-worth is collective, not individual. Our idealism comes out of a desire to do right, not to be right. Sometimes it gets mistaken for arrogance, but it isn’t. Really. Why anyone would think that, I have no idea.
I’ve never named Thoughtworks in my blog before, mostly because I’ve only been here for six months, and partly because I wasn’t sure they’d want to be associated with my ramblings. I’m not an expert on Thoughtworkers, but I am one. I’ve spoken to a lot of them. I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist or in any way associated with the dissection of character, except as a writer. I have my fair share of both arrogance and humility. One is louder than the other. This piece is not intended as an apology or an excuse for anything I may have written previously.
I was asked to write on arrogance at Thoughtworks, and have tried to do so thoughtfully. It’s not an instruction manual. It’s not perfect. I have generalised horribly about various categories of people, especially my colleagues, ex-colleagues and client staff. Some of you are less arrogant than others. I love working with you all.
This post represents my personal views, etc., and hasn’t even been read by the TW management at the time of posting, let alone authorised.
Now you’ve read the disclaimer, if you’re still offended by this post, please let me know. I’m keeping score.