I don’t usually like to talk about stereotypes, but it occurred to me that the stereotype about men not asking for directions applies equally well to CIOs of both genders. So let me talk about why men don’t ask for directions, and I think we’ll find some lessons that will apply to senior executives as well. Here is the countdown of my Top 10 Reasons:
Reason #10: They think they know where they’re going
Obviously if you think you know where you’re going then there’s no need to ask for directions. But do you really know, or do you just have a general idea? Once you get to the area of your destination, are you going to have to drive around for a while to figure out exactly where your destination is? That costs money and time, and it hurts your image as a leader.
If you’re a senior executive, do you know exactly where you want to go, and do you have a plan to get there? If not, then you need help with directions.
Reason #9: They’re too proud
This is an ego thing. But intellectually you know that no one is omniscient, so why should it damage your ego to ask for advice? You still retain control, since you can choose to follow the advice or to ignore it, based on the credibility of the advice. Get over your ego, and do the best thing for yourself and your passengers.
Reason #8: They’ve been brought up to believe that men and senior executives don’t ask for directions
This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s why a lot of stereotypes persist long after their original cause has disappeared. It’s like one of those traffic jams caused by an accident that occurred three hours previously; cars still slow down at the site of the accident even though the wreckage is long gone. How do we break the stereotype? By ignoring it. Repeat after me, “It’s Ok for men and senior executives to ask for directions. It’s Ok for men and senior executives to ask for directions. …”
Reason #7: They believe men/CIOs have a natural sense of direction
There might be some truth to this. Thousands of years ago in the hunter/gatherer days the men had to hunt down game, and many biologists believe there might be a genetic basis for men having a better sense of direction than women. There’s certainly a difference between men and women in the way that they read a map and give directions. Men are more likely to hold a map upright (North at the top) and they intuitively know how to make the map directions correspond to physical reality; women are more likely to rotate the map to align it with the direction they’re facing. Men are more likely to give directions using distances, street names, highway numbers, compass directions and navigational markers like traffic lights (e.g., go five miles on the highway, and then go west on Main Street); women are more likely to give directions using landmarks (e.g., turn left at the Baptist Church, then right at the grocery store).
For CIOs, it’s possible that they have a natural sense of organizational direction based on their many years of work experience. They know “in their gut” when their organization is headed in the right direction, and so they don’t feel that they have to ask anyone else. The only problem comes when their gut hasn’t been reoriented to face the rapid changes occurring in our world; maybe their gut is pointing them in a direction that’s no longer appropriate.
Reason #6: It takes too much time to ask for directions
A cliché comes to mind: “There’s never enough time to do it right, but always enough time to do it over.” Unfortunately, the cliché is true in a lot of situations. Saying that there’s not enough time for something is equivalent to saying that you don’t consider it important enough to take precedence over other activities. So if you cite this reason, then what you’re really saying is, “I don’t think it’s important to know where we’re going or how to get there.”
Reason #5: They can’t find someone to provide an answer
Usually this situation occurs when the destination hasn’t been defined well enough. If you just know you’re looking for something like the “old Moore house,” then it will be a miracle if anyone can help you (unless you’re in a very small town). Similarly, vague organizational destinations like “Six Sigma quality,” “100% Up-Time,” or “a more effective organization” are likely to cause confusion and lead to mixed advice.
Reason #4: They know they’re going to get conflicting directions
As I said in the explanation for the previous reason, if you define your destination better, then you’ll be more likely to get consistent directions. But realistically, there are usually many ways to get to the same destination, and you’ll need criteria for picking the best approach. Do you want to get there quickly but with more mileage? Then take the highway or its IT equivalent: spend more money to buy time. Do you want to take the safest possible path? Then consider using public transportation or its IT equivalent: wait for mainstream use of a new technology before employing it yourself.
Reason #3: They trust themselves more than they trust a stranger
Of course you trust yourself more than you trust a stranger – who wouldn’t? But that’s not the real issue. You don’t know how to get to where you want to go, and it’s likely that a stranger does have that information. So put trust aside as an issue, and accept the fact that you have to talk to other people to obtain additional information. Do you trust yourself enough to be able to differentiate between good advice and bad advice? If you do, then apply that differentiation skill in your discussions with strangers.
Reason #2: They figure, “If I know where I am, then I’m not lost”
Senior executives with accounting backgrounds are particularly fond of this excuse, and they often overemphasize detailed tracking of project expenditures. But you can’t drive by looking in the rear-view mirror, and knowing what you’ve spent doesn’t necessarily help you know how much more you have to spend in the future. Are you spending money on the right things, or are you just being economical in spending money on the wrong things? There’s a big difference between doing things right and doing the right things.
And [drum roll, please], the number 1 reason why men and CIOs don’t ask for directions:
Reason #1: They think, “I can’t stop; we’re making such good time.”
This is my favorite reason because it seems so illogical. In IT we see it as a focus on irrelevant measures. For example, you may make a big deal about your 50% improvement in lines of code per hour or about your 95% server up-time, while ignoring the fact that your software isn’t meeting user needs and your servers are always failing during the peak customer service hours. Think about what you’re measuring, and make sure that your measurements directly relate to business needs.
Not asking for directions is obviously a stereotype, and some men and CIOs do ask for directions. But even if you don’t think the stereotype applies to you, please think about the 10 reasons, and see if any of the reasons sound like something you might say. Maybe you’ll learn enough about yourself to ask for directions a little more often. And if we all get a better idea of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there, then maybe we can all reach our destinations a little bit sooner.