On being different

A good friend of mine, whom I highly respect both personally and professionally, once lamented that his professional profile doesn’t really match the typical job descriptions that are commonly posted. He’s an enterprise architect, but not the usual kind who’s enamored with tools and frameworks, but rather one who develops decision frameworks to break apart complexity. He’s also done a successful cloud migration, but isn’t a hands-on programmer. Lastly, he’s a great leader and influencer, but hasn’t managed people in a while.

At first sight, I shrugged off his concern and shared my view that being different is actually a great thing, at least at a certain level of seniority. After some reflection (and unpleasant experiences), I have to revise, or at least qualify, my point of view, though.

The dangers of being different

The last chapter in my book on transformation refers to the Valley of the Blind. This short story aptly describes the dangers of being different, even if, or perhaps especially when, you bring new capabilities into an existing system. The story goes roughly like this:

Through an accident, a person stumbles into a remote village that hasn’t had any contact with the outside world for a long time. Upon his arrival he notices some peculiarities about the village, for example houses not having any windows or lights. He comes to realize that due to lack of genetic exchange the whole village suffers from a genetic aberration that renders everyone unable to see. Naturally, he believes he has a big advantage over the villagers because he is the only one who is able to see. However, his perceived advantage isn’t worth that much in this specific environment, and actually causes confusion and ultimately resentment among the villagers, who conclude that something is majorly wrong with him and particularly his eyes and proceed to extract them.

So being different isn’t without perils, in remote villages and organizations alike.

Diversity isn’t about being different

Now corporate PR sites and blog posts are full of talk about embracing diversity, be it gender, race, or sexual orientation. However, this type of diversity doesn’t speak to different experiences, different ways of working, different ways of communicating, or different ways of solving problems. In fact, most organizations will want you to be the same to some extent: same-ness reflects a specific company culture and common career frameworks set common expectations. Surprisingly, the attractive “modern” companies that publicly celebrate diversity are also very data-driven in their internal processes, which generally favor a high degree of same-ness. Some companies even adopt special vocabulary to describe “that’s how things are done around here” in a cute sounding, but also somewhat dismissive way.

Two kinds of organizations

Through my career I have found that organizations react to people being different in two opposite ways:

  • Some companies, let’s call them Type X, appreciate the difference and see it as an asset. They know that different points of view and different ways of working enrich their discussions and avoid blind spots. They are happy to pay the price, for example in having to moderate different communication styles.
  • Other companies don’t see the value of different ways of working and treat it as a nuisance and friction that they’d like to eliminate. Let’s call them Type Y.

Naturally, you may want to find out what kind of organization you are dealing with before joining them. Actually, being different from the advertised job descriptions may make for a good test.

Putting it to a test

Applying for a job profile that generally matches what you do, but has a different interpretation of the role can be a good test. Let’s say you are an enterprise architect and apply for a role that puts a lot of emphasis on certification and tools experience. However, you firmly believe that enterprise architecture is much more about seeing the big picture and that tools and certifications are only a means to an end. Applying to the job will tell you quite a bit about the organization: Type X organizations are going to be curious about your point of view and will be interested in having a conversation. They will likely feel that they are missing out on some of the skills they wanted, but will also appreciate that they will get some they didn’t ask for. Ideally, they may even recognize that they fell prey to be looking for the equivalent of the Digital Hitman and see your application as a way to better understand what’s needed to do the job.

Type Y organizations will likely decline your application, which can be disappointing at first. Ultimately, it may just be a useful signal, though, of what lies ahead.

The signals can also come in more subtle forms. For example, I had a US-based company rescind an offer while I was in exit negotiations with my current employer (notice periods in Germany are extremely long) because they felt “that I wasn’t excited enough about the role”. Now, I don’t know how they would know how excited I am, or whether they know that the general way Germans express excitement is to stop complaining. But somehow they seemed to have a predefined notion of how people are supposed to react and express their excitement (it could also have been a rather nasty negotiation tactic, not one that particularly builds trust).

Sadly, I ignored these early signals and found myself in a long string of bizarre discussions with a manager who regularly convened himself of the argument that what I did “wasn’t the way things are done”, despite positive feedback from customers. These discussions included my favorite of always bringing everyone along to a customer meeting (note: he never worked in professional services).

Two ends to the story

So if you are different, and happy to be that way, it may be good to have a closer look at the organizations you will be joining as you may find surprising results. I have worked for quite traditional organizations that actually hired me because I am different and fundamentally appreciated it, despite the occasional friction. I have also worked for companies that celebrate diversity but apparently had a very clear (and very different) view of the way they like to work and interact with customers.

Interestingly, the story of The Valley of the Blind apparently has two versions with different endings. In one version, the seeing person is able to see a major rock slide coming down from the mountain ahead of everyone else and is the only one who is able to escape, together with his loved one. In the other version, everyone gets buried. If you find yourself in the valley of the blind, make sure you escape in time.