Assume Good Faith

<<This article is the second in a series of Leadership Lessons from Wikipedia. Read the first Wait What? & Anyone Can Edit>>

Wikipedia has literally thousands of editors and participants. The project is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, with millions of views a day. No single person leads or coordinates the thousands of edits that happen every day. And, yet, the workings of Wikipedia can teach us Lessons on Leadership.

When we work in teams, conflict is inevitable. And when you work on the world’s largest crowd-sourced encyclopedia – the repository of all human knowledge – conflict occurs daily.

Working together

Much of the time, edits are not controversial. Someone might fix a typo. Someone else adds a piece of breaking news. Someone might decide that an area of knowledge needs expansion, as when XX nearly single handedly added hundreds of scientists. The various people working on articles co-exist and create in parallel. Inevitably though, editors will disagree about what belongs in an article or how something is phrased or the proper title of an article.

When editors disagree, they take the discussion to the Talk page of the article and strive to reach consensus. And when they do, they are instructed to first assume good faith.

Assuming Good Faith

To create order in a fundamentally chaotic world, certain guideline and guideposts are necessary. And in the world of the ‘pedia, a fundamental guideline is that in every conflict, we must Assume Good Faith of the others involved in the dispute. Since the various editors don’t generally know each other IRL (in real life), they cannot build trust face-to-face. Therefore, they are instructed to bring trust with them.

The primary reason to Assume Good Faith is that when we believe that the other person is acting in an aggressive or belligerent manner, compromise is exceedingly difficult to achieve.

The Attribution Fallacy

Sadly, assuming good faith (particularly of strangers) is not a fundamentally natural behavior. Psychologists call it the Attribution Fallacy. Simply put, when we make a mistake, we attribute the best possible explanation. And when someone else makes a mistake, we attribute the worst possible reason. For example, if I’m late to a meeting, I rationalize that I was talking with another client, or that I had a sick child that morning, or a flat tire, or any number of a million reasons why I was late that made it not my fault. If someone else is late to my meeting, I tell myself the worst possible story about why. They don’t respect me or what I’m trying to achieve. They don’t care about other people at all. In fact, they have an irremediable character flaw that runs deep in their soul. This, my friends, is the Attribution Fallacy at work.

The Best Possible Story

When we assume good faith, we assume the best. We tell the best possible story about why someone is opposing us. When we assume noble intent, the stories we tell open the doors to understanding and consensus. We get curious rather than confrontational. We read emails with a friendly tone instead of a snarky tone. Assuming good faith creates an atmosphere of trust and belonging.

How do you show your team that you believe that they are acting in the best interests of the team?

Leadership Lessons from Wikipedia — Wait. What? & Anyone Can Edit

This article is the first in a series of Leadership Lessons from Wikipedia.

Learning from the Chaos

Wikipedia is often portrayed as a chaotic place. Teachers warn students to not use Wikipedia, because — after all — anyone can edit. Vandalism has occurred — anyone can edit. Complex topics are covered in depth — anyone can edit. [Since the Wikipedia is, at its heart, an encyclopedia and therefore only a secondary source by nature. Therefore it, and all encyclopedias, should be questioned and used as pointers to primary sources.]

In the early years, back in 2004 when I first starting editing, we had our share of chaos. The premise was amazingly open and simple. A store of human knowledge that anyone can edit. Studies were conducted, showing that errors existed and compared  the Encyclopedia Britannica error rate. Vandals would come and blank pages, create attack pages, violate copyright and just try to use the ‘pedia as a web hosting service.

Wikipedia was one of many mass projects that were born in those years. We searched for larger and larger Prime numbers in Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (affectionately called the GIMPS, which — by the by — just found the world’s 50th known Prime number in January 2018). We listened for extra-terrestrials in the SETI@Home Project. We transcribed out-of-copyright books in Project Gutenberg. These projects continue today, although they don’t have quite the reach as the ‘Pedia.

Wikipedia’s openness was built as a reaction to Jimmy Mays’ previous project, Nupedia. Highly orchestrated, the effort was often getting bogged down in bureaucracy. Therefore, Wikipedia began with only a few rules and as a feeder into Nupedia. Early editors dove right in, creating and changing. And mistakes were made.

Establishing Guidelines and Guideposts

As we built out the ‘pedia, we got to know each other and established certain patterns of behavior. We built teams, called projects, and agreed on conventions, and then guidelines. The guidelines are not rules per se, since “Anyone can Edit” remains a core tenant of the project. These guidelines evolved out of a shared desire to create a reliable repository of knowledge.

And the guidelines have matured over the years. They have been crafted, forged, tested and revised. They have grown into a store of collective wisdom and an amazing set of rules for teamwork and leadership. This article is the first in a series to explore how we can take the guidelines and apply them more broadly to leading teams. And while we’ll be addressing them individually, the system works as a consolidated whole. Replicating only some of the principles will drive only limited success, and may even take your team down a chaotic road.

Empowering Your Team

Let’s start with the foundational tenant — Anyone Can Edit.

On Wikipedia, anyone can edit any page. The project works not in spite of this tenant, but rather because of it. Everyone who views the page, spots an error, typo or omission can correct the mistake or add information and clarification. The next viewer can add, and even change the change back (e.g., execute a reversion).

Taking this principle to our daily life, we find that when we work in teams, leaders should empower every team member to contribute. Every member should have an “Edit This Page” button. On the factory floor, this button can be an actual physical thing that stops the production line. Everyone on the line has the ability to stop the entire line to make a small fix, ensuring that small problems or misalignments don’t mastitis into larger problems. In knowledge work, the button is open and transparent policy that incorporates feedback rapidly.

For this to work, empowered employees must have access to make changes. More importantly, this empowerment must extend beyond their individual area of expertise. Sound scary? Well, okay. Perhaps it is. But what are you scared of? If you’re scared that your employees may make mistakes, then put bumpers on the rails rather than speed bumps or road blocks. (We’ll discuss another foundational tenant — Assume Good Faith, later. Suffice it for now to say that you must trust your people.)

On Wikipedia, allowing anyone to edit means that many times changes are made to articles by people who aren’t Subject Matter Experts. And the robustness of the system ensures that substantial mistakes won’t endure for long. Allowing anyone to edit builds resiliency and leverages the Wisdom of the Crowd.

As one might imagine, this power occasionally will spawn an Edit War. An edit war happens when two or more editors revert each other’s changes. They can conceivably go back and forth ad infinitum. The guidelines direct such disagreements to be worked out on the Talk Page. Each article has its own talk page. Editors use these pages to discuss disagreements, put forth new ideas, and drive to consensus.

An empowered team must also have a place to air new ideas, propose changes and brainstorm with fear of reprisal or censure. Team members often learn best from their peers. Floating out an new idea or proposed change shouldn’t be strictly required though. Innovation suffocates in bureaucracy.

To embrace and tap into the power of your team, you must trust your team to do the right thing with the power you give them. The best way to show your team that you trust them is to give the power and the latitude to make mistakes.

What power can you give your team today?

Let’s Talk about Failure

Tell me about a time you failed. What’s your biggest weakness? Talk about a time when your project didn’t go well.

These questions — and those like them — are often tricky. When we are interviewing, we are scared to reveal too much about our downsides. But the failure isn’t about you being imperfect. The hiring manager already knows you’re not perfect. You’re human, after all, and will make mistakes.

The only people who haven’t made mistakes are those who never try anything outside of their comfort zone.

An analogy here is helpful.

My family was checking in for a trail ride, while on vacation. The ranch hand asked us to rate our horseback riding experience levels. Our oldest son claimed to be an intermediate rider. While he’s only 13, his traditional summer camps have given him ample opportunity to ride. The ranch hand asked one simple follow-up question, “Have you ever fallen off a horse?” Nick laughed and said, “Oh, yeah!” By this simple admission of failure — of falling off and getting back on — he established himself as someone who just might be an intermediate level rider. You see, those who have never fallen off a horse clearly haven’t ridden much.

Don’t worry about admitting failure. Claim your mistakes and failures as evidence of great deeds tried and lessons learned.

Here’s how to answer.

Step 1: Choose something meaningful. The interview process is about getting to know you. Pick a time when something actually went wrong and something that was actually your fault.

Step 2: Talk about how you discovered your mistake. You’re demonstrating your techniques for both self-awareness and the monitoring of your work.

Step 3: Talk about the recovery. How you respond to failure and fix problems is essential. Failure will happen from time to time. You should demonstrate your ability to address the immediate issues and move forward.

Step 4: Talk about what you learned. Henry Ford wrote, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” Describe what you learned about your industry, about leadership, about yourself and what you now do differently as a result of your mistake.

If you ride enough, you will fall off. You don’t need to be embarrassed about falling. Just keep riding!

Reflections from Grace Hopper Celebration

Last week I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the Grace Hopper Celebration. This year was my first year presenting, and first year attending. I emerged tired and inspired. My three key reflections are: 

  1. GHC stands for Grace Hopper Celebration. While GHC can be confused with a conference, the “C” stands for Celebration, not for Conference. The difference is importance since it really set the tone for a fun, celebratory atmosphere. Watching so many awards for various achievements was inspiring all by itself.
  2. Melinda Gates shared in her keynote that many paths lead into technology. In addition to the many paths into tech, we have many places to end up in tech. The breath and diversity of companies at the Career Fair was truly stunning. Everyone from Neiman Marcus and Macy’s to traditional tech like Microsoft, Apple, Google to emerging Twitch and some companies that are just starting out. Plus universities were recruiting these top minds. And most surprising to me where the stolid companies who are so heavily reliant on tech to perform their own digital transformation to be relevant in the 21st-century. The US Federal Reserve System and my beloved United States Navy. All these organizations are seeking these great, capable, technical experts to help their organizations move into the future. 
  3. The diversity of all this diversity proved that we as individuals do not succeed. When we succeed, it is always as a team. We succeed together. There’s room for all of us, various places for us to be 

In conclusion, I left the Grace Hopper Celebration with a renewed sense of pride in Microsoft and in my sisters in technology.


Getting Better by Getting Bored

When was the last time you were bored? When was the last time you lay on the grass, imaging dragons and bunnies in the clouds? When was the last time you let your mind wander without a pre-determined destination? Sat alone in silence? Daydream?

In our modern era, busyness is considered by some to be a badge of honor, or an addiction, and we are too busy to read to our children or to take vacations. Why would we even want to be bored? We feel the pressure to squeeze every productive moment from our day.

Except that we’re not being productive. We’re being busy.

When we get bored, we meet ourselves in the silence. And when we know ourselves, we know what success looks like for us. And then we can create that success and leave everything else behind.

In 2014, researchers discovered that boredom drove creativity even more than relaxation.

Find time to day to let your mind wander. Turn off the radio in the car. Leave your phone at home while you walk the dog.

Enjoy your boredom!




Following Your Heart into Success

Like many veterans, I put on my first uniform as a teenager. My last job interview was at the pizza parlor next to my high school. In the Navy, my career path was handed to me, my jobs were given to me, the result of a Byzantine, bureaucratic process. My voice mattered very little in what I would be doing next.

During transition, the world was open to me. That’s exciting! The world is a great, big place and the options were wide, and varied. I could become anything I wanted. I could teach Shakespeare at a small mid-western college, be a country music DJ in Tennessee, I could do anything!

The possibilities were endless and overwhelming. And I was scared. I was scared that I wouldn’t get a job, scared that I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills, scared that I wouldn’t — that I couldn’t — be successful as a civilian. Fear entered my heart.

So, I took the first job that was offered that paid well. Fear ruled my heart. And it was a disaster. The company was a complete mismatch. The job was awful, and my boss lied to me. I didn’t even realize that there were people out there who would do that. He lied to me, and I left.

This next time, I took a job that I enjoyed, a job that I looked forward to every day. Well, maybe not every day — let’s say, most days. Success followed.

You can be successful too. Don’t be like me. Don’t let fear rule your heart, and force you to take a job because of the paycheck.

If you follow your heart, follow your passions, don’t give into the fear, you will be happy in your life and success will follow success.

And once you’ve landed, you need to turn around and bring your buddies along. We do this as a habit in the military. We don’t leave people behind.  When you reach your success, turn around and help those shipmates and battle buddies who follow you.


They Nearly Got Me

The training comes every year, and every year we go through it. Phishing, spear-phishing, malware, Trojans, ransomware, viruses, worms, click-bait. The adversary is out there and they are good. So we go through training. And me, I’m a certified IT Security professional. I have a degree in Information Assurance, for goodness sakes!

And still. Today, they nearly got me. Continue reading “They Nearly Got Me”