#031 - Reading about it ≠ experiencing it
Welcome to Issue #031 of The Forcing Function - your guide to delivering the right outcomes for your projects and your users.
✍️ Insights: How my experience of finding a job after university still shapes me today.
🤔 Made me think: In theory, practice is the same as theory, but not in practice.
👨💻 Worth checking out: I can't ride a bike. How fast can Mike Boyd teach me?
How my experience of finding a job after university still shapes me today.
I never planned to do a Master’s degree immediately after graduating from my undergraduate course.
In fact, I distinctly remembering cursing myself for that choice. For undertaking the gargantuan effort of researching and writing yet another thesis a mere year after publishing my undergraduate thesis. But, back then, the UK was on the brink of recession, the dot-com bubble was bursting, and graduate jobs were even more scarce than usual.
Instead of taking any role that I could get, I opted to wait it out in the hope that the situation would improve in a year or so. I was tempted to spend the time backpacking around the world but realised that, given how competitive the graduate job market was, I needed to distinguish myself from my competition. So, I doubled down on studying and set my sights on being the valedictorian of my postgraduate course.
In the UK, it’s a stereotypical belief that those of us of Chinese ethnicity highly value education. That it’s fundamental to being successful so we are driven to achieve top grades and commit to persistent practice to push ever upwards. So much so, that it’s seen as part of our identity.
Whilst there’s a grain or two of truth in that belief, I would also say that my experience of coming into the job market for the first time in a turbulent economic time back was more impactful on me - for it still shapes how I see the world today.
My dread of the repeated assessment centre testing and whether I’d be strong enough vying against the other candidates. My worry of not getting a good graduate role - let alone one that would be a strong foundation for my career. My fear of letting down my parents after all the time, money, and sacrifice they had invested into my education.
Living that experience has influenced me ever since and instilled in me a sense that not only do I need to be competitive, but I also have to stay competitive.
Theory versus practice
As much as I hope that you get value from my stories, my insights, and my advice in each issue, I should also point out that it’ll only get you so far.
Not an admission I make lightly but one that you should heed. Without going through the experience yourself, you run the risk of acting as if you know what to do. When, in fact, you don’t understand it enough.
In past issues (e.g. #012, #016, and #026) I’ve written about various aspects of how to effectively engage and manage stakeholders. But none of that tells you how it primally feels when you’re facing down a bully of a stakeholder that you have say no to. Until it happens, you don’t know for certain what you’re going to do: if you’re going fight to stand your ground, freeze in the moment, or flight away.
Back in the 1960s, two researchers (Held & Hein) hypothesised that you have to be directly exposed to your environment to effectively function in that environment.
To test this they ran an experiment with 10 pairs of newly reared kittens and this purpose-built carousel.
They harnessed each pair of kittens, allowing one kitten (A) to control the movement of the carousel with its legs. However, the other kitten (P) couldn't move its legs nor could it touch the floor. But, it could observe what (A) was doing.
Then, after training the kittens in this carousel daily over 8 weeks, Held & Hein tested each pair to see what they would do in the real (albeit still controlled) world. The active kitten (A) in each pair passed the three tests. They would extend their paws when brought close to a surface, they’d avoid the steep cliff to get down from a high platform in favour of the gentle slope, and they’d blink in response to the fast-approaching hand of a researcher.
The passive kittens (P) all failed all three tests.
Both were trained in the same carousel for the same amount of time, yet the difference was stark. Because the passive kittens were deliberately deprived of the “sensory stimuli” of physically walking for themselves, they didn’t receive crucial “sensory feedback”. In other words, they couldn’t make the mental connection between how they moved and the environment they were moving around in.
It wasn’t enough for the passive kittens to watch their active counterpart walk; they had to walk for themselves.
“I'm trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it.”
Morpheus | “The Matrix” (1999) by The Wachowskis
Expanding your worldview
In a similar way that travelling helps me mitigate being narrow-minded (as I wrote about in #028), so has my deliberate practice of seeking out other people’s experiences and worldviews to add to my own.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds. You just need to be interested in someone’s story and ask intriguing questions to find out their why. Or be open to opportunities even if it’s not something that you’re keen on - as you never know how it might change your viewpoint.
For a specific example, for the business analysts (BA) on one client, I introduced the concept of doing a regular “hihyō” - coined from the Japanese word for “critique”.
It’s akin to a peer review but it’s far less formal or prescriptive. The idea is that the BAs get together on a regular basis to share their perspectives on their work. To show you how this can work, here’s a recent update I got from a BA on how that meeting is going since I left that client:
“In the initial meetings, we’d share what we’d be working on and talking through them by answering questions. In later meetings, as we were doing test and defect management on our respective projects, that became a topic of interest. So, it became less about artefacts per se and more about techniques on how to deal with testers and sponsors.”
The aim is not focused on sharing knowledge or debating the pros/cons of the choices made. It’s more about broadening everyone’s worldview by getting an insight on how other BAs would tackle the work you’re doing and why they’ve chosen a different tack to you.
Knowing where you came from and the blind spots you have
My lived experience is likely the reason for why I’m motivated to be a lifelong learner. It’s why I don’t leave it to the whims of a line manager, the frugal size of a training budget, or my fluctuating motivations. And why I continue to earn at least 1 new certification each year.
Whilst that does benefit me, it also imposes a limited worldview on me. So much so that it creates blind spots. A few that I’m aware of, most I’m not until it rears its ugly head at the inopportune time.
By trying to embrace new perspectives, even the contrarian and diverse ones, I’m building in margin of error in my thinking. I may not always get it right but, hopefully, when I’m wrong, I can still recover. Along with another lesson learnt to add to my collection and, hopefully, a memorable story as well.
Now a few questions for you: What lived experience is unknowing driving you and impacting you? What blind spots do you have? When was the last time you sought a different opinion to your own?
🤔 Made me think
In theory, practice is the same as theory, but not in practice.
Whilst being conversant with key concepts, frameworks, and models is important in business analysis, as well as other disciplines, it’s also merely one of many starting points.
“All models are wrong, but some are useful."
George Box | Statistician
🧑💻Worth checking out
🔗 I can't ride a bike. How fast can Mike Boyd teach me? | Tom Scott
Riding a bike is a basic skill. I can’t recall how I was taught but I do remember that it was daunting at first. Also, falling over … a lot as I practiced my parents’ garden.
It’s one thing knowing the theory … the bike is a gyroscope that only works at speed, look up for better balance, keep your feet on the pedals, and brake gently with both brakes. But, until you get on the bike and actually feel what it’s like, you can’t start to learn how to ride.
And I don’t mean physically but also mentally. As a kid I was fearless because I didn’t know any better. As an adult, knowing what could happen, can be a lot harder to overcome. Only then can you practice and change.
Watch on the Tom Scott Plus channel.
🖖Until next Thursday ...
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For now, thank you so much for reading this week's issue of The Forcing Function and I hope that you have a great day.
PS: Thanks to P for reading drafts for me.
Nice writing for #31 I was also raised with the viewpoint from my parents that education will open doors and give us great opportunities. Which is why last year I did 3 courses, somewhat challenging to study in the evenings after work and putting the kids to bed but a real sense of achievement once done. I do totally agree with putting things live into practice is best and that's how we really grow. Travelling for me definitely broadens the mind and brings out the exploring ME but I haven't managed to get back to that since children...I'm sure it will come. Looking forward to next week's article. Have a great weekend 🙂
> travelling helps me mitigate being narrow-minded
Same here! Though, I also think it's a pretty popular sentiment that "travel broadens the mind" so to speak.
I think nowadays, a rather underrated approach to mitigate narrow-mindedness is: reading. Not reading just anything, of course, but reading up on a random subject you never would've deliberately chosen to.
I studied engineering in university, but the undergrad administrators required us to take a few social science and humanities courses. At first I thought it was a waste of time. But because of that, I got to read a lot about history, geography, and even popular music around the world (not stuff like K-pop, but popular folk music unique to certain cultures around the world).
I never would've chosen to read up on any of this because I would've assumed it wouldn't interest me. Instead, it drove me to read up on a whole bunch of other subjects I wouldn't have previously considered. All of a sudden, the world became a much more interesting place to learn about. It's crazy.