Assess your surroundings from 2,000 feet above

Posted by on Aug 13, 2012 in Computerworld Columns, Culture | 0 comments

I’ve spent the past two weeks flying my experimental two-seater across the country, landing at small airports, pitching my tent wherever I can, bouncing in the thermals, and mostly observing the world from a couple thousand feet up. From that vantage point, youcan learn what a community values. The same is true, in a figurative sense, with organizations.

What can you glean from a literal bird’s-eye view? Consider the impression I got of Canadian, Texas, a small town near the Oklahoma border. When I looked down on the town from the air, it seemed like a family-oriented place, neither rich nor poor, since most of the housing consisted of single-family homes with small yards. It was easy to see that the town was suffering terribly from this summer’s drought. Every yard was brown and dry, as was the terrain for at least 50 miles in every direction, with one small but significant exception: At the southern end of town, a brilliant green football field was surrounded by a bright orange running track and had the name of the team, Canadian Wildcats, emblazoned in the end zones. White bleachers lined both sides of the field, which sat next to a large parking lot. The field looked very much like an oasis.

True, you don’t get a lot of detail when viewing it from 2,000 feet in the air; I couldn’t tell whether the field had been watered, replaced with artificial turf or painted green. But it was clear nonetheless that the townsfolk of Canadian take a lot of pride in that patch of ground. It told me that for Canadians, football is more than a game, and that field is more than just a place for their kids to play. The Canadian Wildcats’ field is a public forum where the community can come together, bond and express their pride.

All communities, even project teams and companies, make decisions about what’s important to them, and those choices are often indelibly marked, visible to the observant — just as the things that are important to the residents of Canadian, Texas, were apparently visible to me from a couple thousand feet above.

Whether you’re joining a technical team or working across the divide with nongeeks, the things you learn about what’s important in your new environment can determine what sort of first impression you make and whether you will be embraced or rejected by your new colleagues. Violate unspoken rules of conduct, and you may be in for a rough ride.

For example, I was called in for a meeting with a potential consulting client. As I arrived, I noticed that the company had cubicles with low walls, cubicles with medium walls, cubicles with high walls, small offices with no windows, midsize offices with small windows, and large offices with big windows and meeting tables. Without exchanging a word with anyone at the company, I knew that this was a place that had a high regard for hierarchy. So I knew that I should focus my attention on the CIO rather than any of his lieutenants; they wouldn’t be making any decisions and probably wouldn’t voice any public opinions. I acted on that assumption in the meeting, and my suspicions were confirmed. In the end, the CIO hired me. I doubt that he would have if my behavior had not reflected recognition of the company’s strict pecking order.

So when you engage with new people, pay attention not only to the tasks that you are asked to do, but also to the values of the group. A quick glance from 2,000 feet can tell you all you need to know.

 Copyright 2012 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.

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