Broadcasting my philosophies at work

Over time, I’ve been collecting catchphrases and tiny philosophies that I try to live by. Particularly at work. Some I’ve made up, others I’ve borrowed or remixed.

“Strong opinion, loosely held”1. “Radiate intent”2. “Praise with a spotlight, bollock with a laser beam”3. “Be bold”4. “Directness is politeness”5.

I like to think some of these philosophies are a little counter-cultural. Particularly for the Civil Service.

Broadcast your quirks

In my current role I’m working on a fairly large policy programme. It’s a great job, working on the kind of boring magic6 that makes my heart sing. As a rough idea, the programme has enough people working on it to fill a small, countryside pub, and I’m one of the senior managers.

It’s not the first time I’ve been in this kind of position but it is the largest team I’ve worked with; and certainly the largest number of teams and people that I’ve had to lead.

In recent weeks, values, culture and behaviours have come up in a lots of contexts – explicitly or implicitly. Planning meetings. “Ways of working” discussions. Emails about things people need unblocking.

These interactions have made me stop and reflect on the importance of broadcasting your quirks. Particularly, when you’re leading a big team.

My catchphrases, are just that: mine. Your working philosophies are probably not the same. You won’t know about mine if I don’t tell you. They certainly aren’t shared philosophies if I haven’t communicated them or made you want to follow them too.

In a meeting a few weeks ago, one of my teams was talking about how decision making processes were slowing us down on a particular problem. I dropped in one of my little banner-cries; that I thought the team should move away from asking permission, towards radiating intent. That they should tell people their plans openly and repeatedly, and keep moving forward until someone raises a concern.

That one tiny catchphrase has re-energised that team. They’re now making progress faster because of the explicit permission they’ve been given to be a bit counter-cultural. And they’re now quoting it back at me at every opportunity.

That would never have happened if I hadn’t broadcast my working philosophy and encouraged others to follow it too. Sharing your personal quirks – particularly when you’re leading a team – can be a game-changer.

Strong opinion, appearing strongly held

Throwing out banner-cries is all well and good, but there is a fine line between being counter-cultural and arrogant.

One of the philosophies I hold most closely is that “I am paid to have an opinion”. Not necessarily good opinions. Not necessarily the opinion that is the right answer. But opinions nonetheless.

I don’t get paid to sit and say nothing in the corner. I don’t get paid to blindly follow orders. I get paid because someone thinks my brain is worth paying for. I should have ideas and I should share them appropriately.

So when someone asks for my view, I will at least try to form an opinion and tell them what I think.7

In a separate conversation recently, a colleague reflected back to me that sometimes I appear very confident in my ideas, and that they interpret this as me being wedded to them.8

This was somewhat of a shock to me. I am constantly repeating the phrase “strong opinion, loosely held”. I say it so often that it’s become a standing joke in the team. I say it because I want people to know that I’m offering a view that I know might not be right, and that I am inviting alternative views.

That feedback has given me pause.

Maybe by being bold, I’m being a little too bold. Or maybe I’m not bold enough.

Maybe I’m not radiating my intent enough. Maybe I don’t say “strong opinion, loosely held” anywhere near enough. Maybe I haven’t explained what I think that means enough. And maybe that’s preventing them from having their own strong opinion, loosely or strongly held.

Be mindful of the shadows you cast

Another catchphrase I’ve borrowed is “be mindful of the shadows you cast”9. As a team leader, every action casts light or shadow on the working environment and behaviours of the wider team.

Putting your philosophies out there for people to live by can be transformative, energising and create momentum for your teams and work. But only if they understand them and you build a shared sense of ownership of those values. You have to bring people with you or the banner-cry stops being a beam of guiding light. Instead it creates a shadow cast over individuals, stopping them from shining.

  1. Which I picked up at GDS, but was apparently originally Paul Saffo’s idea and is more accurately phrased as “Strong opinion, weakly held”↩︎

  2. Pretty sure I picked this up from Janet Hughes, also whilst at GDS. ↩︎

  3. This one was a Jim Dickinson philosophy, circa 2010. ↩︎

  4. This one is definitely Janet↩︎

  5. This one is mine! ↩︎

  6. I saw this phrase – “boring magic” – in a blogpost from Steven Messer, which he attributes to Conor Delahunty. I’ve never met either of them, and I think I left GDS long before they arrived. I don’t think it was meant to describe the kind of thing I’m working on now, but it works! ↩︎

  7. I know what you’re thinking. Of course, the middle-class white guy thinks he should have an opinion. That’s not quite it though. I try not to confuse forming and offering an opinion, with believing I’m entitled to have or voice an opinion when its not appropriate. I’m rarely intentionally that much of an arsehole. ↩︎

  8. In fairness to both me and this colleague, it’s someone I work with frequently but not with the same level of frequency or closeness that I work with teams I directly manage. It’s completely plausible that they have never heard me say “strong opinion, loosely held” or explain what I mean by that. We’ve talked about it now, and I think we have a better understanding of each other’s philosophies. ↩︎

  9. This one is from Ollie Entwistle. ↩︎