Posted On: Friday, 22 May 2009 by Rajiv Popat

Nine AM.

There is something about Nine AM.

It's the time of the day when something amazing happens.

A time when any organization is vulnerable to someone like me, who is trying to study it and get loads of information about the organization, the people who work there and the culture chart that prevails in the organization.


"But Pops, why is Nine AM so important?" --- you ask.

OK, do this --- walk into any organization you want to examine at nine AM sharp and observe.

Watch everything that goes on; closely.

Chances are; here's what you see --- tons of people dressed in formals, getting in, grabbing coffee and settling down to work. If you are in a larger organization and have a good imagination you'll be able to draw your very own personal parallels.

Now, here's the secret --- rare exceptions apart, that crowd that you are watching as it gets in to work, dressed in all formals, is exactly that --- 'a crowd'.

Remember the Pereto Principal they taught you in management schools when you were a young and budding student?

It was the little lesson where they taught you how only twenty percent of the people do eighty percent of the job in any organization.

Remember that? 

This 'crowd' rushing in to office at Nine AM with ironed shirts, ties and suits; is that other eighty percent of the people the Pereto Principal did not explicitly mention just for the sake of being nice to them.

A very few exceptions apart, they are the boring mediocrity and potential-current-or-future-whiners.

The Nine AM observation is one quick and easy way to spot whiners.

On the other hand, here's how you spot potential genuine builders:

  1. Drop in to office at five in the morning and you'll see a couple of heads popped up in the vacant cubical farm; deeply immersed in serious work. You have a few genuine builders who are showing up early to get some real work done.
  2. Drop in to office at eight evening and you'll see a couple of heads popped up in the vacant cubical farm; deeply immersed in serious work.  You have a few genuine builders who are staying back late to get some real work done. 
  3. Of the Nine-AM-Crowd, try to spot the slightly strange guys; the strangeness can manifest itself in subtle ways - for example, some of these guys might be coming in with slippers, others with undone hair; some might be wearing jeans; some T-Shirts or some even shorts. You would find clear violations of organizational rules conducted with absentmindedness and humility. These guys will not even realize they are violating your organizational policies and rules.

If you can't find any of the above three in your organization, it's bad news.


My point?

Real builders are not just ugly; they are often slightly weird and lack respect for rules.

Of all the things that describe genuine builders 'normal' is one word which does not even come close to describing what genuine builders are or what they do.  

Here is the ironic part, however --- Most organizations out there seem to have a serious passion for hiring 'normal' people who do 'normal' things, including following 'normal' office timings, adhering to 'normal' office dress code and organizing 'normal' meetings for having 'normal' discussions.

Guess what?

These 'normal' employees, indulging in 'normal' activities; results in --- 'normal' products --- and unfortunately 'normal' products are utterly boring.

'Normal' is not remarkable.

'Normal' doesn't work.

When it comes to genuine creativity --- it is the weird and ugly that often do the job.

Yet, most organizations out there continue to chase the 'normal'.

Scott Berkrun, describes this organizational mistake in his excellent essay on why ugly teams win. He explains:

We love the simple idea that only a beautiful person, or a beautiful team, can make something beautiful. As if Picasso wasn't a misogynistic sociopath, van Gogh wasn't manic-depressive, or Jackson Pollock (and dozens of other well-known creative and legendary athletes) didn't abuse alcohol or other drugs. Beauty is overrated, as many of their works weren't considered beautiful until long after they were made, or their creators were dead (if the work didn't change, what did?). Most of us suffer from a warped, artificial, and oversimplified aesthetic, where beauty is good and ugly is bad, without ever exploring the alternatives.

Scott takes the concept of our leaning towards the safe and beautiful and attacks it heads on:

Pop quiz: given the choice between two job candidates, one a prodigy with a perfect 4.0 GPA and the other a possibly brilliant but "selectively motivated" 2.7 GPA candidate (two As and four Cs), who would you hire?

All other considerations being equal, we'd all pick the "beautiful," perfect candidate.

No one gets fired for hiring the beautiful candidate. What could be better, or more beautiful, than perfect scores? If we go beneath the superficial, perfect grades often mean the perfect following of someone else's rules.

They are not good indicators of passionate, free-thinking, risk-taking minds. More important is that a team comprising only 4.0 GPA prodigies will never get ugly. They will never take big risks, never make big mistakes, and therefore never pull one another out of a fire. Without risks, mistakes, and mutual rescue, the chemical bonds of deep personal trust cannot grow.

For a team to make something beautiful there must be some ugliness along the way. The tragedy of a team of perfect people is that they will all be so desperate to maintain their sense of perfection, their 4.0 in life, that when faced with the pressure of an important project their selfish drives will tear the team apart. Beautiful people are afraid of scars: they don't have the imagination to see how beautiful scars can be.

Most genuine builders are nowhere close to 'normal' or 'safe'.

Amongst all the other things they are ugly, shameless, loud and weird; they have beautiful scars which they carry with elegance and humility. They take risks, bend the rules, fail and continue consistently even after being told countless times they should consider stopping or changing their path. 

Fred; gets in by Nine AM sharp; he's out at six; always adheres to the official dress code; always fills his timesheet on time; never has a fight with his manager; never goes around the official company policies; never breaks rules; never fails and is one hundred percent professional.  Even your HR department loves Fred. You should not be having Fred in your team and if you can influence the decision, you should not be hiring Fred in your organization.

"But Pops, the guy is just following the rules. What is the problem here?" --- you ask.

That dear reader, is precisely the problem.

Chances are, that Fred plays equally safe when it comes to his work.

"It's not my fault. The use-cases aren't clear about that" --- ever heard that?

Chances are, that, this is exactly what you might hear from Mr. Fred.

Chances are, that Fred; dear reader; is not a builder.

He is yet another boring employee and a whiner; at least a potential one.

While your organization might be busy looking at time registers to see who is coming early or late; if you are looking for genuine builders in your organization; all you need to do is be careful of is the Nine AM employees; who wear a tie to office and get everything right.

They are your whiners.

A few others troublemakers that remain contains all your builders.

If you want to genuinely monitor how well your organization is doing, how many whiners and how many genuine builders you have --- observe your organization at Nine AM.

What is the number of Nine AM Employees compared to the early comers and late goers in your organization?

How many individuals can you think of who break your organizational rules like timing and dress code without even realizing they are breaking rules?

How many weird and scarred employees does your organization have, dear reader?



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