To Each His Own

    October 18, 2004

I give a fair number of speeches for conferences and private IT department meetings, and there’s almost always a chance for questions and answers during the formal presentation.

Afterward, I hang around and frequently get different questions, the ones that no one wants to ask in front of a big group. Among the most common are those about the mechanics of how I write and prepare for speeches. “Where do you get your column ideas?” “When do you write?” “What time of day?” “Where?” “Do you use paper or a word processor?” “Do you do outlines?” “Do you rehearse?” “Do you try out those jokes and stories on your wife?” The permutations are almost endless.

In many ways, these inquiries are quite flattering. Someone admires what I do enough to want to emulate it. (Or perhaps they hate it so much that they want to avoid being remotely similar.)

But I always answer these questions with mixed feelings. I know that I’m not giving the interviewers any truly useful information, because they’ve asked me the wrong questions.

Rarely do they really want to know where I sit or how I work. What they do want to know is, “How can I write and speak in my own way?” Or, “How can I express myself in the pages of magazines and the platforms of meetings?”

Unfortunately, the only honest answer to what they’re really asking is, “I don’t know how you can do your own version.” Just knowing how I work won’t really help them much.

I can explain the workings of the publishing industry. I can tell you about the mechanics of how speeches are solicited, bought and sold. But, in truth, this will give you no help in writing funny and enlightening articles or in the art of delivering entertaining and perception- transforming speeches.

No one can tell another person how to be most productive when it comes to creative work. The methods are highly personal. If there were one good way, we would long ago have developed a surefire process for writing Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. You’d just have to follow the steps (requirements, planning, design, writing, editing, printing and so on), and out would pop a work of genius.

It is critically important for managers of technical staffs to understand this. Most technical work, despite what many process gurus will tell you, is largely a creative endeavor. You can slice it and dice it any way you want, but in the end, there’s always a box on the project plan that says, “Magical insight happens here.”

If you want to encourage your staffers to operate at their peak potential, here are a few things you ought to consider:

Don’t try to impose your work habits on your subordinates. Most managers got where they are by being great producers (despite the Dilbert imagery). But just because some particular approach to work is good for you doesn’t mean it’s equally effective for everyone else. Just because you keep everything in folders and have a clean desk at the end of the day doesn’t mean that some people on your staff won’t be much more productive with a blizzard of paper filling the room.

Don’t believe that there is any one right way to do something. Uniformity for uniformity’s sake isn’t a particularly good goal. It may be comforting for you as a manager to know that all of your staff operates in precisely the same way. Thinking of people as interchangeable parts makes management relatively simple, but it’s a mistake. You’ll be giving up a lot of the value of the individuals on your staff if you think that way.

Encourage your staffers to find their own personal styles. Most technical staff members want to do things the right way and are constantly on the hunt for best practices. It’s important to let your people know that variations in style are normal and acceptable. Otherwise, they’ll spend lots of time looking for the least-common-denominator approach, and that saps energy and productivity.

Giving people the permission and responsibility to find their own workstyles both frees them to search for their own best practices and sets the expectation that they will produce as best they can.

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant and the author of the award-
winning book “Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver
Technology” (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer,2003). He regularly speaks for
corporations and national associations across North America. For more
information go to: He can be reached at