The problem with “why wouldn’t you…?”

When I was only a year or so past graduation I had an opportunity to help define a new business proposition: finding ways in which malicious insider behaviour could be identified using the data already available to our client.

I distinctly remember the afternoon following our first half-day workshop with the client team in which we’d been figuring out how we could have spotted insider activity based on real historical cases. As I briefed back to my senior manager to show him where we’d got to, he jumped in with a “why wouldn’t you just do X?” question.

His proposal was a good one and I fumbled for a response as to why we hadn’t found that answer. I felt stupid and like I’d wasted my and our client’s time, but was frustrated because what we’d done that morning was collaborative, intellectually rigorous good work. We’d just found a different answer.

It was a form of phrasing often used by this manager and I quickly realised a very poor one. Fast forward to today and I still see this form used inappropriately all the time.

What’s wrong with it?

It’s a lazy and disempowering way to issue an intellectual challenge.

Firstly, it’s a proposal, not a genuine question. Most often in my experience it is meant as “what about doing X?”.

Second, because it’s a proposal, not a question, it can be quite disempowering, particularly from “senior” people. The time for this kind of proposal is before the team have to invested a bunch of work finding their own answer, not afterwards.

Thirdly, it’s aggressive. The framing of the proposition is essentially challenging the responder, in the short time it takes to comprehend the proposal hidden in the question, to find quality arguments against the proposal.

It’s incredibly easy to find yourself making proposals in this way (I certainly do). Should it exist as a tool in your toolbox? Of course, but use it judiciously.

And if you find yourself frustrated and on the receiving end of this kind of “question”, consider doing what I did: learn to spot the question and reframe it, with something like “I don’t know, that’s not what we came up with but I’ll be sure to fold it in to the next discussion”.

We could all be a bit more like Aethelflaed – come and celebrate Women in Digital this Wednesday

Last year's event

Two days to go until our Women in Digital event!

I’m very excited about Wednesday – we’re hosting another Women in Digital event in my home town of Leeds.

Last year’s event made a big splash. The women I work with every day came back energised, optimistic and boasting a new and strong professional network. The event itself became a bit of a springboard for leaders at DWP (and in digital in general) to channel the surging energy of the year’s historic events and movements such as #TimesUp,  #MeToo and the statutory requirement for large organisations to make public their gender pay gap.

I am so incredibly proud of how boldly, clearly and loudly the voices of some of those who attended last year have been heard. Many have become successful role models for women with a career in digital, helping in turn these women to be role models.

And since then, the equality narrative has evolved. What had been at its core a debate about equality between two genders (men and women) has now turned into something with even bigger consequences.

There is still so much to do

Women are still the largest single group on the wrong side of the pay gap. However, this is not true when it comes to things like ‘covering’ at work, where it is the group made up of LGBTQ people who are most affected. See this excellent report from Deloitte University in the USA from 2013 for more.

This year the event will expand its horizon towards tackling an (even) bigger challenge. Perhaps it can be summarised with the question “what if by working towards equality for all genders, we can also work to a more inclusive and effective workplace for everyone?”

The challenges ahead of us – successfully delivering Brexit, delivering critical government services that meet citizens’ heightened expectations, responding to an economy being reshaped by technological advances such as Artificial Intelligence (the “fourth industrial revolution”) – mean that we need to nurture leaders who can lead across boundaries more than ever, and find ways to build inclusive environments in which people can bring all of themselves to bear to the benefit of us all.

Leading across boundaries

This week I learned about the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians. 1,100 years ago she led across boundaries to great effect. It would be a crying shame, but not a surprise, if you too hadn’t come across her story – I’d encourage you to read some of it here.

In these times of great opportunity and challenge, in this month of Pride and with a spirit of excited optimism, I’ll be thinking this week of how we can all channel a bit of Aethelflaed. See you on Wednesday!