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Friday Philosophy – The Importance of Context November 23, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

A couple of weeks ago I was making my way through the office. As I came towards the end of the large, open-plan room I became aware that there was someone following behind me so, on passing through the door I held it briefly for the person behind me {there was no where else they could be going}, turned left and through the next door – and again held it and this time looked behind me to see if the person was still going the same way as I. The lady behind gave me the strangest look.

The strange look was reasonable – the door I’d just held for her was the one into the gentleman’s bathroom. *sigh*

I was doing the correct thing, I was attempting to be helpful to a fellow person, I was in fact being very polite. But because I had utterly failed to consider the context, there is now a lady who works on the same floor as I who considers me, at best, as strange. At worst she thinks I am very strange – and more than a little creepy. I fear the latter given her reaction when she saw me in the kitchen area recently and turned around. {By the way, if anyone can think of a good way I can clear this up I’d appreciate it. After all, I can’t exactly go up to her and say “sorry about holding the door to the gents for you the other day, I did not realise you were a woman”}.

My point is that you can do what you believe is the right thing but, because you are not thinking of the context or are unaware of the full situation, you end up giving utterly the wrong impression. I had a work situation like this a while back.

Without going into too much detail, I was working with a client on a data warehouse project. The Oracle database bulk-processed large quantities of data, did classic big-data queries and was sitting on some fairly expensive hardware with dedicated storage and the intention of implementing Dataguard. One of the issues they had was with a subsidiary part of the system that created a very large number of small transactions, lots of updates. High volume OLTP on a DW setup. It was hammering the storage and eating up all the available IO. The data for this subsidiary system was transient, no need to protect it.
I realised that the hardware was not correct for this subsidiary system and it needed no archived redo. Archiving redo is an all or nothing situation for an Oracle instance. So happy that I had worked out what to do I proposed {with a smile} moving the subsidiary system to it’s own database on it’s own hardware.
When I said this to the client, their response was a stony look and the comment “We’ve just spent a fortune on this platform……”. Having dug my hole I proceeded to jump right in there “It’s OK, what I am proposing is only about 5, 7 thousand pounds of kit – nothing compared to what you spent already!”. The client now got very, very annoyed indeed.

You see, the context is that they had been sold a system that was very expensive – it was to do a demanding job. They had been getting poor performance with the system and that is partly why I was there. They also did not really understand the technical nuances well (at least, not the chaps I was talking to) and they did not appreciate why I said what I did. From their perspective, this smiling loon was suggesting that a system costing 2-3% of what they had spent on their data warehouse platform was going to be able to do the processing that the expensive system could not. Either they had spent waaay too much, this new “expert” was an idiot or else I was lying to them. And they did not like any of those options.

Looking back it is clear I should have been more aware of how they would receive what I said. I’ve done this before {several times}, bounded into a situation like a wide-eyed puppy and gone “Look! We can just do that!” without considering things like upsetting the guy who had suggested the original solution, or making the on-site expert look stupid or blowing away a salesman’s pitch. Or that I have missed a glaring and valid reason why they can’t “just do that”.

I suspect that a few people would say “no, you just tell them the way it is and if they don’t like it or you upset someone then tough”. Well, maybe, but not if you want to be there to help fix the next problem. Also, I know I am not great at appreciating the context sometimes. That is part of why I will never run a company or be a senior manager, I lack the skills to judge the impact of what I propose or say sometimes, in my rush to be helpful. I am slowly learning to just hold back on ideas though and to run things past friends or colleagues with more “whole picture” skills first though. I might be rubbish at it but I can learn I am rubbish at it.

In the case of the situation above, the expensive system was correct for what they wanted to do – and maybe not quite expensive enough. I was suggesting a slightly unusual fix for a specific problem and I should have been more laboured in explaining the problem and more circumspect in leading them to the solution. I should have taken more time.

I should have checked who was following me and where I was going before I held the door open.

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