Why you should hire curious people

hire curious peopleWhy should you hire curious people?

Because the future of work belongs to the neo-generalist.

And neo-generalists are intensely curious.

Here’s Harold Jarche, explaining the importance of generalists:

Wicked problems need neo-generalists
Neo-generalists defy common understanding. They cross boundaries, and some break them. They see patterns before others do. They go against hundreds of years of cultural programming. I doubt this is what most employers in large organizations are looking for. But neo-generalists are necessary today — “It is through the hybridization of and cross-pollination between such disciplines [science & humanities] that we will arrive at solutions for our wicked problems.”
Harold Jarche, change takes time and effort

People who can effectively work on wicked problems — problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize — are in high demand. That’s because such problems involve high stakes, and significant organizational or societal consequences. They don’t succumb to the standard problem solving methods we’ve used for millennia.

An example of the successful curious neo-generalist — me!

If you had told me forty years ago, a freshly minted high-energy particle physics postdoc, that I’d go on to have four additional careers (owner of a solar manufacturing business, computer science professor, independent IT consultant, and meeting designer/facilitator) I wouldn’t have believed you.

I became a physicist because I was intensely curious about how the world works. Physics seemed clearly the most “successful” tool for understanding the world from a science perspective.

Yet as I entered the world of research and academia I realized I was also curious about the social and organizational cultures I found there. I grew fascinated by the social dynamics of large research meetings and how national educational models and cultures influenced how people interacted and behaved.

The solar energy company

When I first visited Vermont I became aware of something that I’d unknowingly wanted for a long time. Immigrating to a rural region of the United States meant that I had to give up my multinational research. So at the age of 26 I joined and became an owner of a solar manufacturing company.

The company needed a general manager. I knew nothing about business, but I taught myself bookkeeping and accounting. I began to discover the subtleties of managing employees. Though I didn’t know it at the time, these skills would turn out to be invaluable on beginning my consulting career.

While at Solar Alternative, I convened some of the earliest conferences on solar power held in the United States. My curiosity about what else was going on in my professional field at the time, would eventually lead me to the meeting design and facilitation work I do today.

Teaching

When I began teaching computer science I had never taught before. (And these were the early days of computer science as a curriculum, so there were no established models on how to teach it!) So I began to teach in the way I had been taught: lecturing with questions. Looking back, I see I was a mediocre teacher for a long time. One day I had to create an impromptu class. So I asked students some questions about privacy and ethical issues and we had a discussion. I was amazed at how much better the class was, and how much more the students got out of it. That’s when I finally started to become curious about better formats for learning than those I’d been taught.

Consulting

While teaching I had also started IT consulting, and ten years after entering both worlds I had two full-time jobs. Importantly, I had become a successful IT consultant because I was a neo-generalist in this fast-changing field. (Read the linked post for full details.)

I gave up teaching and dove into the world of IT consulting. Initially I saw myself as a nerdy provider of tech solutions, but I quickly discovered that people problems were actually at the root of the issues my clients asked me to resolve. Once more, my curiosity caused me to become fascinated by organizational culture and its influence on the effectiveness and healthiness of the organizations I encountered.

Over time I realized I was becoming more interested in people work than science. I was good at technical consulting, but felt drawn to working with people.

Meeting design and facilitation

Throughout my teaching and 20+ years of IT consulting I had continued to convene conferences in the professional and social areas that piqued my interest. How this played out can be read in my various book introductions and opening chapters. My unexpected discovery that peer conference formats could greatly increase the effectiveness of and participant satisfaction at meetings turned into a desire to get the word out to the world about these simple but unknown techniques.

When my first book was published, I was discovered by the meeting industry. Ten years later, I am happy consulting on meeting design and facilitating meetings all over the world. My curiosity and abilities as a neo-generalist have certainly paid off for me!

Hire curious people

Curiosity is a key driver of my voyage of discovery about myself. It has also led to me finding my mission, along with congruent work that I love. All this sprang from being curious.

Although I miss the resources and colleagues available when employed by organizations, I prefer to work alone with the support of a loose and widespread web of connections with resources. However, there are many neo-generalists (most of them I suspect) who prefer to work inside organizations.

I recommend you hire them!

The two must-do steps to hire the best professional help

When you need professional help, how do you select the best professionals?

Countless experts — such as accountants, plumbers, doctors, lawyers, and meeting planners — will take your money in exchange for advice or services. So, when it’s time to minimize your taxes, modernize the bathroom, diagnose that stabbing stomach pain, draft a complex contract, or organize multiple regional conferences — in short, get help with something you can’t do yourself — how do you choose great help?

It isn’t easy. If it was, we wouldn’t hear horror stories about accountants who can’t file a correct tax return, builders who make costly (and hilarious) mistakes, serious cases of medical malpractice, million dollar errors made by attorneys, and mistakes that meeting planners continue to make.

Why it’s hard to choose the right help
If you’ve never plumbed a kitchen sink in your life, how can you determine whether someone who says they’re a plumber really knows what they’re doing?

There’s a simple reason why it’s tricky to pick great professionals. If you need help, obviously you lack crucial knowledge or experience. So when you seek help, you don’t know if someone who claims to be able to help really can!

Don’t despair! Here are the two essential steps for hiring great professional help.

Ask for and check references
Everyone knows that you should ask for references for a professional who’s going to do work for you. Unfortunately, knowing you should do something doesn’t mean you will actually do it. How often do you ask for references from a professional you’re planning to hire? Do you ask a potential builder? An accountant? A doctor? In my experience, I am rarely asked for references.

In addition, many people ask for references but don’t check them! You may think that professionals are only going to give you the names of people who are satisfied with their services. While that’s usually true, talking to references will invariably turn up useful information. For example, you may discover that a plumber does good work but doesn’t finish in a timely fashion. Or an attorney writes competent contracts but his drafts need to be carefully checked to make sure that changes you request are actually incorporated. It’s not uncommon to hear information from a reference that immediately makes you decide not to employ the professional.

So getting and checking references before hiring is an essential step if you want to minimize unpleasant surprises. These days, crowd-vetted online sites like Angie’s List and houzz provide a helpful starting place, but you can’t beat talking directly to clients of professionals you’re considering.

See if they’ll say, “I don’t know”
My mother had an unusual set of medical symptoms, and had the misfortune to pick a doctor who was unable to admit that he didn’t know what was wrong with her. Instead, he told her that she had multiple sclerosis, which caused her much emotional upset. Years went by without the relapses or progressions normal to her illness, but she refused to believe that his diagnosis was wrong. Finally I called him up and confronted him, and he admitted that she did not have the disease. Years of suffering could have been avoided if we had ascertained at the outset that he was incapable of admitting that he didn’t have all the answers.

Checking to see if a professional will say they don’t know when they actually don’t is an important hiring step that is rarely performed. Interview the professional and ask them questions about the work you want them to do. Listen carefully to how they respond to your questions. You are looking for them to show that they know the limits of their abilities, and that they are willing to share their limits with you.

If necessary, ask whether they can do something that is a little outside their stated expertise and listen carefully to how they respond. If you hear an unwillingness to admit that they are not able to fulfill your request, you are receiving an important warning. Ignore it at your peril!

Choosing professionals who are aware of and clear and honest about their own limits ensures not only that they can actually do the work you need, but also that they will let you know when they are unequipped to handle any that problems. These are the people you want to work for you.

That’s it!
Faithfully execute these two simple steps when choosing professionals and you’ll avoid the common problems that occur when obtaining help with life’s challenges. These must-do steps have made it possible for me to pick competent, trustworthy help for years. I hope they help you too.