While on spring break years ago, in a time before GPS and smartphones, my friend and I were trying to get to a movie theater while visiting Cambridge, MA. We stopped a stranger on the street and asked for directions. He thought for a moment, pointed down the street and said, “walk two blocks that direction and ask again.” We did, and found ourselves two blocks closer to our destination.
Now think about an engineering leader asking a product manager for directions, or vice versa. When we take on those roles, we aren’t satisfied with “walk two blocks that way and ask again.” Most traditional engineering cultures expect us to provide (and to follow) directions chock full of “go four blocks south, take your first right, then your first left…” with such detail and clarity that the listener will follow our comprehensive directions and get to their movie on time.
I think that when we tend to hold ourselves and each other to unrealistic standards of direction giving, we let the best become the enemy of the good. What strikes me about the stranger we met in Cambridge is his choice to share useful but incomplete information rather than shrugging sheepishly and claiming ignorance, afraid of giving bad advice or of being unable to articulate how to get there.