We were at a family event recently. My husband was telling some friends about some wisdom I  gave our son when he had just started dating. I don’t remember saying this, but it sounds like me so I probably did. The wisdom went something like this:

If you date a really intelligent person, you won’t have to listen to them, just believe everything they say.

If you date a really dumb person, you just need to pretend to listen to them, and ignore everything they say.

If you date someone in the middle, you will need to listen to everything they say and sort out if you agree or not. Not sure you want to do this.

My son asked my husband which one he married. My husband pleaded the fifth, so I guess I married smart.

As I listened to the advice I gave,  I cringed and smiled. Hopefully, my son ignores this advice, as he does with most the wisdom I have dispensed. While we can debate whether this advice works for relationships, it absolutely can’t be applied to a technical leader. Of this I am certain.

Technical leadership is all about listening; not just listening for your next opportunity to speak, but listening to understand, evaluate and question.  You need to listen to everything and everyone, and judge each on the merits of what they are saying in the moment. You need to turn off your bias filters – the best ideas can come from anywhere, and so can the worst ideas.

You especially need to listen to the folks people view as the “chosen ones.” These people are likely brillant, so many folks are afraid to question them for fear of looking stupid themselves. Or worse, they don’t really listen because they assume the person is right and they follow their lead. Both of these responses could be the death of a project. The “chosen ones” will always have a point of view and there will likely always be a validity in their assertions. This doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes, have a faulty assumption, or be overly complicated.

I have seen it happen numerous times: folks make assumptions about how things were originally done. They highlight how to grow using those assumption as a foundation. Often, the path forward they describe is spot on – if their basis for making them was correct. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.  

Sometimes I wish technology could be done like the “live blind” auditions on “The Voice.” In this world, you’d just get to hear what the person said without any background or bias, so there would be no “chosen ones.” Plus, you’d get to sit in spinning chairs. I know this isn’t practical. However, what you could do, and I have done for V1 and large products, is bring in industry experts to review the technical strategy. Have the team present the strategy or architecture to them. This has two benefits: the team needs to put together a detailed plan with no hand waving, since they are explaining things to folks with no preconceived ideas. Explanations need to be detailed.  This also works because you have real domain experts listening – the external reviewer don’t care if they are liked or not, and doesn’t have any basis to know who the “chosen ones” are. This requires some work upfront, but can eliminate a lot of pain.  

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