“We all have defining moments. It is in these moments that we find our true characters. We become heroes or cowards; truth tellers or liars; we go forward or we go backward.”

Robert Kiyosaki

I know it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason the phrase “it depends” is used widely by good consultants. And honestly, from my own experience, I probably use it now more than ever after ~20 years’ experience.

To me at least, the phrase means that there is more grey than black & white…no clear-cut answers without the required context and perspective. Experience teaches you that because there are so many variables to consider and if you haven’t defined the context, it’s all just a wild guess (even if it’s an educated one).

When you’re young and inexperienced you may have the determination to succeed (read: youthful exuberance), but the lack of experience (or understanding of the context) may get you in a lot of trouble because you may see something as black or white when in reality it’s a shade of grey.

This story is how my inexperience (almost) got me into a whole heap of trouble, and how it defined the rest of my career.

The Auditors

We were extracting a whole bunch of data from a homegrown ERP system, and a part of that was the maintenance records of vehicles. We had to determine which vehicles were overdue for maintenance, as well as the cases where maintenance was taking too long. It sounds pretty straight forward, but there was a ton of noise in the data that made it extremely difficult to isolate what we needed…and I did not have the business or system knowledge at that point to understand the nuances nor navigate it.

My inexperienced self wasn’t very amused by the lack of perceived data quality, and rather than trying to help find a solution I was rather vocal about the inability of the source system to provide good clean data.

A few months into the project I was asked to meet with an auditor. The auditors were reviewing all IT systems and processes, and seeing that we were working on a new system it was part of the regulatory process. I didn’t think too much of it at the time and proceeded to be very critical of the ERP system and our challenges with getting good quality data. Many fingers were pointed in other directions…something I am not very proud of.

The very next morning, the CEO called an emergency meeting with all the executives. It turns out that my conversation with the auditors made it all the way to the CEO, and my direct manager on the project (my customer) had to do some serious damage control in order to correct the perception that the ERP system was incapable of managing the required business processes.

He had every reason to fire me that day, but instead took all the heat and had a very calm conversation with me to explain what had happened. He didn’t blame me, but pointed out the context I failed to see and convey in that meeting with the auditor.

I learned the value of good management that day. He knew that he was dealing with a young, inexperienced and “overly confident in his own abilities” resource, and dealt with the mess I made without throwing me under the bus. To this day I have the utmost respect for him, and I am thankful that he allowed me to make those mistakes and learn from them. And needless to say, I never spoke to the auditors again 🙂

Apart from learning what good management is all about, the most important thing I learnt from that experience is that context is everything. Without the necessary context we’re prone to make assumptions and mistakes from incomplete information, and most likely point fingers because we think we’re not the ones to blame.

Whenever I am in a difficult situation or think that something is wrong, I ask myself “Am I missing some context here?”. It’s a good first question to ask, and it will likely lead you to more understanding and less assumptive statements about the task at hand.

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